As college students advance in their education, conventional wisdom suggests that their studies narrow and become more focused on important concepts within their major. But in at least one course for upperclassmen in the College of Arts and Sciences, broad is beautiful.

Biomechanics, a course team-taught by Piotr Habdas, Ph.D., associate professor of physics, and Jonathan Fingerut, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, uses unique pedagogy and emerging technologies to bring together junior and senior physics and biology students to teach them about the intersection of the two fields.

One of the course’s experiments showed the connection between hydrodynamics — a branch of physics that studies the forces that act on an object as it moves through a liquid — and how species evolve with certain forms. The exercise required students to design and print a shape using a 3-D printer based on their newfound knowledge of animal morphologies and then testing its descent through a large tube of liquid, calculating the drag, or amount of resistance, on the object and comparing it to objects designed by their classmates in a friendly competition.

While the experiment itself is simple, the method is getting attention in academic circles. A manuscript on the experiment and use of technology to adjust shapes — co-written by Fingerut, Habdas and physics major Eric Mongeau ’16 — is in preparation and will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal later this spring. If accepted, it will be the third published work to come out of the class.

“We’re not re-inventing the wheel or pushing the boundaries of hydrodynamic knowledge,” Fingerut explains. “What we’re doing is fine-tuning the lab experience and exploring the use of 3-D printing as a teaching tool.”

One of the advantages of the technology, which was funded by a grant from SJU’s Technology Innovation Fund, is the ability of students to create complex shapes that would otherwise be too difficult to make in any other medium.

“With the 3-D printer, students can make more biologically relevant forms to test,” Fingerut says. “If they understand how a tuna moves through the water, for example, they can mimic the shape of a tuna using the printer and test that shape in the tube. We encourage them to look to nature for the answers.”

The ease of creating and refining objects using the 3-D printing software also allows students to experience one of the most important parts of the scientific process: failure.

“If students create something that doesn’t work in the experiment — something that yields the wrong results — they can go right back to the software and have a new shape within a half hour,” says Fingerut. “We let them fail and help each other. That’s just as important a part of the scientific process as all the data and analysis that they write at the end of the experiment.”

In the course’s first iteration, which was funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, students used simple, store-bought shapes from craft stores and pulled them through containers of oil to conduct the fluid dynamics research. That experiment led to a paper by Fingerut, Habdas and students Matthew Mawhinney ‘11 (physics) and Mary Kate O’Donnell ‘11 (biology) published in the journal The Physics Teacher in March 2012.

Another paper, on an experiment in which students created bone analogs using different materials and methods and tested their break strength, was published in Bioscene in May 2013, with the two professors and students Kristina Orbe ‘14 (biology) and Daniel Flynn ‘13 (physics) as co-authors.

For all three papers, the pedagogy, more than the research, attracted attention. Habdas explains that the makeup of the lab groupings in the class broadens the students’ thinking.

“We intentionally mixed the lab groups — putting the biology and physics students together — to make them think differently,” Habdas explains. He pointed to one example in which the students were asked to make a working model of a circulatory system. “When they worked alone, physics students would make a beautiful model that wasn’t biologically relevant,” he says. “Meanwhile, the biology students made a perfect replica biologically, but it didn’t work at all.”

“Biologists don’t always grasp why physics is in their curriculum,” Fingerut adds, “and that’s because they aren’t often exposed to how it is directly relevant to their studies. When they take this class, they see that very clearly. It also gives them an opportunity to experience working with an interdisciplinary team, which is what their work lives are going to be like when they graduate.”