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 second year in 2012-13, 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.
"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."
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.
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."
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 sophomore 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."
In fall 2012, Mills was in the second year of the two-year program. As he begins the final semester of the integrated curriculum, Mills, and other students who complete the program, will have earned the equivalent of one year each of biology, chemistry, and physics; three semesters of mathematics; and one course each in statistics and computer science.
The number of students entering the program more than doubled from the first cohort to the second. The first cohort, which enrolled in fall 2011, had 11 students, all of whom are still in the program. The second cohort, which enrolled in fall 2012, has 25 young scientists.
Through three semesters, the integrated science curriculum appears to be accomplishing its mission of preparing future generations of scientists to tackle real-world problems using a broader 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.
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.
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."
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.
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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