Physics 234

Physics for Life Sciences II


This course is very much copied from a pioneering effort at the University of Maryland (College Park), where a team of educators representing physics and biology created a new curriculum for teaching introductory physics to life science students. This effort has been funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes through their NEXUS consortium (of which Purdue is also a member). Much of the material printed on these web pages, and practically all of the on-line readings, homework problems, and related materials were created by the UMd team under the direction of Professor E. F. Redish.

Description and Prerequisites

This course is intended for biology majors, other life science majors, and pre-health care professionals. The physics topics chosen are selected for these students and the contexts emphasize authentic biological examples. Prerequisites for the course include:

  • One year of college biology (BIOL 110 and 111, BIOL 121 and 131, or the equivalent)
  • One semester of college chemistry (CHM 109, CHM 115, or the equivalent)
  • One year of college mathematics (MATH 231 and 231 or the equivalent -- calculus and introductory probability will be used)

This is not your parent’s physics! It is nothing like your high school physics either, or even the other intro physics courses at Purdue. This class will focus on the physics relevant to living things, from molecules to worms to woodpeckers. While physics, chemistry, and biology are well established fields, some of the scientific questions you will explore in this class have only recently been tackled. You will focus on physics at the convergence with biology, where physical, chemical and biological principles all come into play. A primary theme for this first semester is the concept of motion -- and the difference between coherent, directed motion and the random motion that occurs at the molecular level.

What do I need to buy?

There is no textbook to buy for this course. There is a lot of reading, however, and you will be given links to on-line articles that you need to read before each lecture. There also is no lab manual to buy. The lab instructions will be made available online. You will need to have:

  • An i>clicker -- a remote control device available at campus book stores. This is the campus standard. If you already have one, you can use it here. Register your clicker following the instructions on the PHYS 233 Blackboard home page.
  • A WebAssign account -- Homework will be done through the online service, WebAssign. To purchase access to WebAssign, first log into Blackboard, go to this course, and use the WebAssign tool to log in there. Under "PHYS 233 Fall Semester" look for "single term access to homework" and follow the purchase instructions.

What else do I need to get?

A lot of what we'll be doing this term will be on the computer. Our readings are accessed through the course web pages and our homework will be on WebAssign. You will need access to a spreadsheet program, and you will learn to download and use a video analysis program in labs. If you do not have your own laptop, you will need to seek out the campus computer rooms and find the places where you can access the appropriate programs. You need:

  • Access to a computer -- for access to WebAssign, Blackboard, etc. (There are times when it could be handy to bring a laptop to lab also.)
  • A spreadsheet program -- You can either use Excel or the spreadsheet available at Googledocs ( to do repetitive calculations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with spreadsheets, there are a number of good tutorials on the web; it's best to look for them by putting "Excel tutorial" into your favorite search engine. We will do our own training on Excel in the first lab.
  • A Video Analysis Program -- You will learn how to quantitatively analyze images and videos. The tool we will use for this will be ImageJ. This program is freely available, developed for use in biology and medicine at NIH, and is the professional standard. If you have your own laptop, we will help you install this in the laboratory period during the second week of class.

What do I need to do to succeed in this class?

Here is a brief outline of what you will need to do throughout the class. For more details, see the GRADES ETC page.

  • Do the reading and commentary for each lecture and selected labs! -- For each lecture and some labs there will be a required reading of about five web pages. For three of these, typically, you will be asked to summarize the page on your Webassign online homework program and ask a question about it. The lecture reading write ups will be due by 11:59 PM the night before the lecture class. You can find the lecture reading assignments on the LECTURES page, and the Lab pre-readings under Recitation/Labs
  • Attend and participate in all the lectures, recitations, and labs! -- This is a class very much about doing, not just about learning facts or equations. In lecture we will be doing very little lecturing but a lot of answering questions, doing group problem solving, and holding class discussions. You will get participation points for some of this stuff, but that's not the point -- the point is that in the doing in lecture and recitation, and in labs is where a lot of the real learning in this class takes place. A major part of what you will be learning is how to talk about and make sense of physics through problem solving with your classmates and by designing, doing and analyzing experiments in lab.
  • Do the weekly homework! -- While the lecture and recitation is where you will learn to talk about and make sense of physics through problem solving, the homework is where you will get to try it out with your classmates on your own. You are encouraged to work with others. We will staff "Help Center" hours in Room 154 (where you also have labs and recitations) where you can find people to work with (and get help when you are stuck). But be careful! If you work together DO NOT create a common solution and everyone copy it. Once you have worked out a solution together, each person must write it up separately in your own words. If two solutions are too nearly identical, neither will get credit! Homework assignments themselves are found on our Homework Assignment page.
  • Keep up! -- We know that you're busy, and in many other classes you can let things slide and then catch up for the exam. In this class that will be very difficult. Each lecture builds on the last, and on the homework from previous weeks. If you miss too much you may find yourself lost. In addition, your grade in this class is based on the accumulation of points in many different categories throughout the term. For details see our GRADES ETC page.

Times and Places

Time, Days Place
Lecture T Th 1:30-2:20
PHYS 112
Recitations W 9:30 - 10:20

PHYS 154

F 9:30-11:20

PHYS 154


Name Room Phone Office Hours
(in room 154)
Instructor Prof. Ken Ritchie PHYS 58 496-8315
Thurs 4:30-5:30
TA ???? ???? ????

Edited by K. P. Ritchie June 2016