How a physics class is changing student attitudes for the better
EAST LANSING, MI — For those students who find themselves having to take a physics class simply to fulfill a college requirement, some might ask why and how it’s relevant to their future career.
Michigan State University professors are taking a newer way of teaching a required introductory physics course and making it more meaningful for students who often start out with an unfavorable outlook and think they’ll never use physics later on.
“MSU is the first to use this method specifically for life science students, a group of non-physics majors who begrudgingly take the class because they usually have to,” said Vashti Sawtelle, an assistant professor who is one of the instructors of the course in the university’s Lyman Briggs College.
The newer teaching method, originally developed by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and known as studio physics, is showing signs of changing attitudes for the better shortly after students walk into class and also increasing their understanding of the topic by making it relevant to what they’re primarily studying.
Studio physics does away with the traditional lecture format and focuses on developing a better understanding through interactive learning in small groups.
“Many have already taken a physics class in high school and didn’t really like it the first time around, so now they’re wondering why they have to take another class when it isn’t really relevant to what they want to do,” Sawtelle said.
Hannah Lufkin, a junior at MSU and a future physician, experienced just that.
“I was nervous about having to take a college physics course because I had taken a class in high school and didn’t enjoy it at all,” Lufkin said, a human biology and molecular genetics major who took the required class as a sophomore. “Instead, I found it helped me understand how physics actually could relate to medicine and what I want to do.”
Sawtelle is on her second year of teaching the course at MSU, but she’s taught similar studio formats at other universities for the past eight years. She said the difference now, however, is the students she’s teaching and the content she’s using.
“A large part of the course is actually taking content from areas of the life sciences such as biophysics or biology and relating it to the students,” Sawtelle said. “I ask them not to just do the standard box on a ramp problem, but also ask them to think about why DNA can be modeled like a spring and how that scenario relates to physics. This is a different approach and one that isn’t being done anywhere else.”
So far, the class has been effective in improving student attitudes and their understanding of the content.
For example, students who were surveyed during a traditional lecture physics class in 2015 showed that while most entered the class with a lukewarm opinion about the subject, they walked out feeling about 10 percent more frustrated, not fully understanding what they just learned.
According to the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey, this finding is consistent with a national trend showing student attitudes become even more negative by the end of taking a physics class.
But in the studio course, which was introduced the following year, students walked in with the same attitude, yet this time, they experienced an 8 percent shift toward the positive, feeling good about physics and like they knew the content better upon completion.
“Ultimately, I’d really like to have a class where all students leave saying physics is fun; you should take this class because it’s fun,” Sawtelle said. “Even better would be to have these students say that physics is interesting and useful, and feeling like they have a conceptual toolkit that they can use in life.
“I definitely think we can get there.”
For Lufkin, that became reality after taking Sawtelle’s class.
“I really enjoyed it because it was a lot of fun to be able to work through an investigation and connect things to different disciplines,” she said. “That’s what helped solidify my choice of career.”
New discovery, more bees mark Michigan’s first, full bee census
EAST LANSING, MI — The first complete bee census, led by Michigan State University scientists, confirmed a new species and revealed that the actual number of bee species in Michigan exceeded earlier estimates.
Identifying potential pollinators, including the 38 new bees recorded in the state, is crucial, especially in the face of declining honey bee populations. All pollinators make an estimated $14 billion annual contribution to U.S. agriculture, so it’s imperative to understand wild bee populations and their benefits to crops and the environment.
“Pollinator conservation is not possible without a good understanding of what bees we have and where they are found,” said Jason Gibbs, former MSU graduate student now with University of Manitoba. “We need better and more thorough sampling of our wild bee communities and an increased emphasis on understanding their basic taxonomy and natural history.”
The monograph is featured in a recent issue of the journal Zootaxa and shows that the Great Lakes State hosts 465 species of bees – the highest number of species reported by surrounding states. Along with providing a more accurate count, this deep-dive into wild bees provides summaries of their taxonomy and behavior as well as a preliminary conservation assessment.
“It was illuminating to learn of the high number of species; one reason that our count could be higher than other nearby states, however, could be attributed to our overall efforts to document bee diversity,” said Rufus Isaacs, MSU entomologist and co-author. “Regardless, this will be an indispensable reference that will help guide current and future research on our region’s wild bees, which is a focus for a group of us at Michigan State University.”
Previous estimates suggested there were around 420 species in the state. Gibbs, who led a holistic, intensive effort, confirmed that past estimates were a tad low.
The treasure trove of bee data stands as a tribute to fieldwork and scientific sleuthing. The team scoured more than 100 years of bee records, including private and university collections at MSU, the University of Michigan and the American Museum of Natural History. Gibbs reviewed bees collected on Isle Royale, gathered pollinators at MSU’s KBS Bird Sanctuary and even “bioblitzed” the Sleeping Bear sand dunes. (A bioblitz focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area in a short amount of time.)
Scientists collected on their lunch hours, while pedaling along the Lansing River Trail and perusing flower gardens at MSU.
The team’s dedication across Michigan’s most-scenic to the state’s somewhat-pedestrian locales, led to the confirmation of the new species – in Grand Rapids of all places. The new bee species, Triepeolus eliseae, is described in the journal with a full taxonomic description and photographs of the distinguishing features.
This new species does not collect pollen or live in colonies. It is a cuckoo, sneaking into the nests of more-industrious bees to lay its eggs. The larva that hatches grows enormous mandibles to dispense with its competition for the host-provided food stores.
The discovery was brought to fruition by Molly Rightmyer, study co-author who named it after her daughter, Elise. This parasitic bee’s presence in Michigan had been known since the early 1940s. However, only now – more than 70 years later – has the taxonomy of this species been identified and resolved.
Balancing the joy of the new discovery is the fact that a number of bees once found in Michigan are now absent. One example is the rusty patched bumble bee, which has not been seen here since 2000. This is now listed as an endangered species, even though there are active populations in some nearby states.
Not sitting on its heels, the team is already thinking of how Michigan’s bee monograph could be improved. The researchers hope more citizen scientists will increase their bee awareness and help document new finds.
To assist identification efforts, MSU has published “Bees of the Great Lakes Region and Wildflowers to Support Them.” Citizens can also log their finds at Bugguide.net and iNaturalist. In fact, citizen science submissions to these sites were included in Michigan’s improved bee count.
John Ascher, with the National University of Singapore, also contributed to this study as part of his effort to document the entire world’s bee fauna. His exhaustive list is available through DiscoverLife.org.
This research was funded by the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Integrated Crop Pollination Project.
Discrimination harms your health – and your
EAST LANSING, MI — Discrimination not only harms the health and well-being of the victim, but the victim’s romantic partner as well, indicates new research led by a Michigan State University scholar.
The work, which analyzed a nationally representative sample of nearly 2,000 couples, is the first study to consider how the discrimination experiences of both people in a relationship are associated with their health. The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“We found that when an individual experiences discrimination, they report worse health and depression. However, that's not the full story – this stress spills over and affects the health of their partner as well,” said William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology who conducted the study with current and former MSU students.
The researchers studied the survey data of 1,949 couples ranging in age from 50 to 94. Survey participants reported on incidents of discrimination, as well as on their health, depression and relationship strain and closeness.
Chopik said the study found that it didn’t matter where the discrimination came from (e.g., because of race, age, gender or other factors). “What matters is that they felt that they were unfairly treated. That's what had the biggest impact on the person’s health.”
And that discrimination had a spillover affect on the person’s spouse or partner. Because people are embedded in relationships, what happens in those relationships affects our health and well-being, Chopik said.
“We found that a lot of the harmful effects of discrimination on health occurs because it's so damaging to our relationships,” he said. “When one partner experiences discrimination, they bring that stress home with them and it strains the relationship. So this stress not only negatively affects their own health, but their partner’s as well.”
Source: Michigan State University
January 7, 2018 – January 20, 2018