Curriculum Element: Electrostatic Potential in Proteins

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Author: Dr. Hailu Bantu, Montgomery College (

Short Description: Activity that helps students to identify practical applications for electric force. They use quantitative methods to visualize electric force as a function of distance between charges within protein molecules.

Implementation Levels: General Physics courses. Examples: General Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism (PHYS 262) at Montgomery College; physics classes covering electricity and electric fields.


Students majoring in engineering and have completed General Physics I (PHYS 161) typically enroll in General Physics II (PHYS 262). This course is calculus based and includes laboratory and discussion sessions. A lecture on electric force, electric field and electric potential is followed by an activity, where students learn practical applications of these concepts using proteins as candidate molecules. As part of the lecture access to the websites and use of software required for the activity were demonstrated. Following the lecture, students were assigned homework to identify a protein and its function. Students collected data on electric force and distance between charged particles in simpler systems (smaller molecules) and plotted a graph to visualize the electric force as a function of distance between charges. Eventually, they collected data on electrostatic potentials in the selected protein molecule to extend the learned concept to a larger molecule that plays important roles in supporting life. This activity gave an opportunity for students to apply physics concepts to biology. Student feedback was positive.