College’s integrated approach to teaching science sees positive results

When the competition is calling to ask how you're doing something, chances are pretty good that you're doing it right.

As the College of Science's integrated science curriculum enters its third year in 2013-14, word of its new teaching approach has spread through the nation's academic circles. Universities, including Yale, have contacted Virginia Tech for information about the program and how best to implement similar ones.


From left, sophomores Adam Mills, Mark Brown, and Meg Gisonda compile and analyze results of their experiments during a lab in Derring Hall. Students compile and analyze results of their experiments during a lab in Derring Hall. From left are Adam Mills, a sophomore from Princeton, W.V., majoring in physics; Mark Brown, a sophomore from Herndon, Va., majoring in physics; and Meg Gisonda, a sophomore from Staten Island, N.Y., majoring in biological sciences.

"It was pretty obvious to us that we needed a different way to introduce students to the basic sciences if we wanted them to be integrated, interdisciplinary scientists," said University Distinguished Professor in Biological Sciences John Tyson, who led the effort to develop the program. "So we designed this integrated science curriculum for the students, and when the dean heard about our idea, he was very enthusiastic about it and asked if the program could be a route to any major within the college of science."

Integrated vs. traditional

Students enrolled in the new curriculum, referred to as ISC within the college, receive a much different classroom and lab experience than those taking traditional introductory courses.

"The ISC labs are designed around the hot topics that everyone reads about in the newspaper or online, or what we call 'grand challenges' of science," said Tim Long, professor of chemistry and associate dean of research and international outreach for the College of Science. "The experiments show students that within those grand challenges they need biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and statistics. They need all of these disciplines to come together to solve a series of experiments."

In a traditional lab, for example, students needing to determine a melting point or a property would use the associated analytical tools and provide interpretation of the data. At the end of the lab, their report would describe how they determined the melting point and how they analyzed the data.

In an ISC lab, determining the melting point or a property becomes a component within a bigger challenge that may take four to five weeks to complete. Students learn how that melting point affects and relates to other experiments as they attempt to solve a larger problem.


Meg Gisonda examines samples she's prepared with Asem Abdulahad, a doctoral associate who leads one of the integrated science program's labs. Meg Gisonda examines samples she's prepared with Asem Abdulahad, a doctoral associate who leads one of the integrated science program's labs.

Each semester involves a six-credit lecture portion coupled with a two-credit lab. The lecture portion meets five days a week for 75 minutes and the labs are twice weekly for three hours. And just as the ISC labs differ from traditional labs, so do the lectures.

"We try to keep the students actively involved during the lectures," Tyson said. "We don't just show them how to work the examples and then send them off to do their homework. We use an active learning approach in which the students have to participate in the lecture."

Development of the curriculum

With support from Dean Lay Nam Chang, faculty members identified unifying themes across three or four different courses in basic science and mathematics. Then they developed a curriculum that would meet accreditation criteria and satisfy the requirements of diverse science departments.

After nearly a year of development, the program was introduced in fall 2011.

The integrated science curriculum is designed for any student, but it specifically appeals to students who are passionate about science, such as Adam Mills, a rising junior from Princeton, W.Va., majoring in physics.

"I always thought that science should be taught in an integrated way," Mills said. "I took all the sciences in high school, and by my junior and senior years, I could see how one thing applied to another, like physics into chemistry and further on into biology."

Mills completed the ISC in spring 2013 and, like other students to follow, earned the equivalent of one year each of biology, chemistry, and physics; three semesters of mathematics; and one semester of statistics.

Look to the future


Claire Wiklund conducts an experiment as Malcolm Vaughan gathers materials for an experiment. Claire Wiklund, a sophomore from Bloomington, Minn., conducts an experiment as Malcolm Vaughan, a sophomore from Prospect, Va., gathers materials for an experiment. Both students are majoring in biological sciences.

The ISC is the first program to enter the College of Science’s newly formed Academy of Integrated Science. According to Academy Director J.P. Morgan, “The ISC offers ideal preparation not just for traditional science majors, but for any of the four new interdisciplinary degree programs (computational modeling and data analytics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and systems biology) we are currently developing.

“Barring delays, we hope to have all four degree programs open for enrollment no later than fall of 2016, so those enrolling in ISC now will be strongly positioned as these new degree opportunities arise,”  Morgan said.

The number of students entering the ISC more than doubled from the first cohort to the second. The first cohort, which enrolled in fall 2011, had 11 students, all of whom successfully finished this in the spring of 2013. The second cohort, which enrolled in fall 2012, has 25 young scientists. Enrollment for 2013 will be allowed to double again, with up to 50 entering students.

Through two full years, the integrated science curriculum appears to be accomplishing its mission of preparing future generations of scientists to tackle real-world problems using the broader, synthesized knowledge of the sciences they'll need.

"I feel like the integrated science curriculum has prepared us a little better for any kind of field research," Mills said. "I was able to get an undergraduate research position my second semester at Virginia Tech, and a big part of that was because of all the real-world application we do in the lab and in the lecture."

  • For more information on this topic, contact Gary Cope at 540-231-6845.

Photos: Integrated science curriculum lab

    Caroline Snyder analyzes data during a lab in Derring Hall.

The lab portion of integrated science curriculum is organized into modules where teams of students tackle some of the most challenging issues that face communities around the world, such as delivery of drugs and nucleic acid therapeutics or understanding chemical kinetics and motion. See pictures from one of the labs.

Program's enrollment continues to grow

    Sophomore Adam Mills, at left, in the lab with classmate Meg Gisonda

The Integrated Science Curriculum welcomed its first cohort in fall 2011. Eleven incoming freshmen took part in the curriculum that spans their first four semesters. Each semester features a six-credit “mega” course and a two-credit lab. 

In its second year, the program saw the number of new students entering the program increase from 11 to 25. 

"Whenever we do an integrated science lab, it's actually real-world application," says Adam Mills, a sophomore majoring in physics. "When we learned analytical chemistry techniques, as you would in general chemistry, we did it as an application of what the EPA does whenever they test for toxins in water or soil. When we learned synthesis reactions or polymerization reactions, we did it in a gene delivery module, which is a research going on right now that could potentially fight cancer."

What's your major?

The 36 participants in the Integrated Science Curriculum represent five majors within Virginia Tech’s College of Science. The summary reflects that one student is majoring in both physics and chemistry.

  • Biochemistry: 6
  • Biological sciences: 18
  • Mathematics: 4
  • Physics: 7
  • Chemistry: 2

College of Science undergraduate selected for Fulbright Summer Institute

Adam Mills of Princeton, W. Va., a rising junior majoring in physics, is one of about 50 U.S. college students selected for a prestigious Fulbright Summer Institute scholarship. Mills will study at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, between mid-July and mid-August.

Fueled by philanthropy

Private giving is advancing the Integrated Science Program in several ways. 

The Brown Foundation of Houston has helped postdoctoral Fellows who are associated with the program attend teaching workshops. 

Students in the program, along with other chemistry or physics majors, also are eligible to apply for the recently created Davy-Faraday Scholarship, named for scientists Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. 

Bill Hassinger of Greensboro, N.C., who earned his bachelor’s in physics in 1950, said he created the scholarship to help students who are passionate about chemistry and physics and are interested in interdisciplinary learning and research. “Physics and chemistry are so blended together now that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins,” he said. 

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