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Preparing For Real-World Research

Science program blends multidisciplinary teamwork, problem-based learning, and student-driven education

by Mitch Jacoby
July 4, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 27

Credit: Chaz Nielsen/Umas Amhert
iCons students learn about the benefits of forming multidisciplinary teams early in their training.
Credit: Chaz Nielsen/Umas Amhert
iCons students learn about the benefits of forming multidisciplinary teams early in their training.

Coming up with solutions to major technical problems, such as supplying communities with clean water and renewable energy, calls for team-based interdisciplinary research. In contrast, the tried-and-true method for excelling in undergraduate science and engineering education focuses on independent intensive study, typically in a single discipline. Imagine how well prepared for real-world problem solving today’s students would be if they spent their undergraduate years focusing equally on mastering the fundamentals of their major field and on developing the complementary skills required for working as a member or leader of a multidisciplinary research team.

That’s the idea that underpins a science education program launched earlier this year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The program, which is optional and to which students must apply for admission, is “credit neutral” in that its courses satisfy requirements for most honors STEM majors. Referred to as iCons, for “integrated Concentrations in science,” the program’s inaugural semester, which just came to a close a few weeks ago, introduced its cohort of 45 students to integrated science learning via concentrations in biomedicine and renewable energy. The program is structured around three courses, iCons I–III, and a senior project, iCons-IV. The aim is to augment the first two concentrations with ones in clean water and climate change in coming semesters.

Scott M. Auerbach, a UMass Amherst chemistry professor who developed much of the program and serves as iCons director, is quick to point out that iCons is not a major and does not replace major field educational objectives. Rather, it enhances them, he says, by giving students an opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team of like-minded students and to apply their knowledge to problems of global significance.

Like traditional science educators, Auerbach remains committed to helping students build solid foundations based on the fundamentals of chemistry, physics, or engineering, for example.

“Future scientific leaders cannot be a mile wide and an inch deep,” he says, meaning superficially familiar with many areas of science but well educated in none. “They need to have real disciplinary expertise.” But that alone is insufficient to hit the ground running in scientific research after graduating from college.

Both graduate schools and employers of science graduates assert that today’s undergraduates are not properly prepared for the integrative teamwork involved in solving global scientific problems, Auerbach notes.

Part of the problem, in Auerbach’s view, arises from training students within the traditional “silos” of chemistry, biology, physics, or engineering. Students educated in those disciplines can communicate effectively with others educated in the same area through the language of their discipline. That high level of communication makes it relatively easy for those scientists to formulate research plans or evaluate the results of a study.

iCons is a new integrated science program at UMass Amherst.?Learn more at contact us at

Yet the same scientists are often ill-prepared to carry out those tasks with scientists educated in a different silo. Worse yet, ­Auerbach says, differences in the educational cultures of each of those silos—for example, a descriptive approach to highly complex systems in biology versus a rigorous mathematical treatment of simplified model systems in physics—can cause students in one area to undervalue the skills and strengths of scientists who specialize in another area.

ICons aims to address those shortcomings, Auerbach explains, by helping students develop core skills, such as cross-discipline communication, teamwork, and leadership, which complement those traditionally taught in the major subject areas.

Auerbach and other iCons faculty members at UMass aren’t alone in recognizing the need to address the shortcomings of traditional science education. Lynn A. Stein is a professor of computer and cognitive science at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Needham, Mass., a decade-old school committed to innovative engineering education. As iCons was being developed, Stein and colleagues at Olin were called upon to discuss the new program’s goals and aspirations.

Describing the content-transmission aspect of science education in caricature form, Stein likens the traditional method to “opening up a student’s head and pouring in knowledge.” According to that view, students are receptacles waiting to be filled, she says. That implies that when the transmission is complete, the student is done learning.

“If we want students to come out of college being practitioners of teamwork and demonstrating leadership with various technical skills, we have to give them the opportunity to practice those skills while they are in school,” Stein says. That requires that they learn not by absorbing what’s handed to them, but by doing, she adds.

Judith Glaven expresses a similar view of science education. She’s associate dean for basic and interdisciplinary research at Harvard Medical School. She has also served for the past three years as an external adviser to iCons.

Real World
To maximize course relevance, iCons students will receive guidance and feedback from people with hands-on experience, such as Pierre Rouzier, a UMass Amherst physician shown here helping Haitians after the 2010 earthquake.
To maximize course relevance, iCons students will receive guidance and feedback from people with hands-on experience, such as Pierre Rouzier, a UMass Amherst physician shown here helping Haitians after the 2010 earthquake.

“These days, research is more and more interdisciplinary,” she says. And that trend presents challenges for faculty who lead research programs that attract students from across a range of technical backgrounds. “We should introduce students at the undergraduate level, or even earlier, to the idea that science is an interdisciplinary field,” she says. “The sooner kids understand that concept and begin practicing it, the better off they’ll be.”

One of the challenges of internalizing that concept is that in traditional college courses, problems and their solutions are neatly compartmentalized. In the classroom, often there are sharp divides between a physics problem and a chemical engineering problem, for example. But as Stein explains, real-world problems don’t come with neat labels that say, “This is the tool set you need to solve me.”

Ideally, students should be educated to recognize where their skills can best be applied and whom to team up with to solve the other aspects of a problem.

Another cornerstone of the new program is student-driven learning. Auerbach had the distinct pleasure of watching that process unfold this past semester as iCons-I students focused on a case study surrounding the cholera outbreak in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Teams of students were asked to identify a societal problem; formulate a scientific question that, if answered, might solve the problem; and propose a scientific study to answer the question. The students were given latitude to examine the problem according to their interests.

Some teams approached the challenge as a problem in biotechnology. They proposed studying the cholera-microbe genome to learn whether the strain in Haiti was the same as other strains. They wanted to study its evolution and mutation patterns to learn how to treat the outbreak.

Other teams reasoned that the heart of the problem is a lack of clean water and the inability of people living in makeshift tent camps to secure enough reliable energy to boil their water supplies. Those students wondered whether the right set of solar materials and heating devices could be designed to exploit Haiti’s sunlight and climate conditions and thereby mitigate the energy and water problem.

The follow-up iCons courses are scheduled to commence in the next few years. ICons-II, which will be offered in spring 2012, will focus on written and oral communication. The aim is to hone skills needed for students to communicate articulately with scientists in all disciplines and with younger students in the program. ICons-II students will delve into topics as diverse as fuel cells and biomass-fired power plants to cholera in Haiti, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism, depending on which concentration they select.

The program’s lab work is scheduled to begin in spring semester 2013 with the launch of iCons-III. Student teams will work with specialized lab equipment relevant to their concentration topic to learn about the capabilities and limitations of lab instruments. Together with faculty members, they’ll plan and carry out experiments.

Then in fall semester 2013, the first cohort will be ready for iCons-IV, in which students conduct authentic research in faculty research laboratories on the UMass campus. ICons-IV research problems will be interdisciplinary and will integrate techniques from more than one laboratory. That course has been designed to help students achieve several goals, including learning to formulate good scientific questions and identifying gaps in their scientific knowledge.

ICons faculty members such as materials chemist Dhandapani Venkataraman, a fuel-cell and photovoltaics expert, are brimming with enthusiasm for the new program. “Traditionally, students work from the bottom up,” he says, learning fundamental concepts in the first few years and finally applying them to a research problem in the fourth year. That’s when they begin to understand why they have been working to learn all those concepts, he says. In contrast, he adds, “iCons exposes students to real problems that they can get excited about right from the beginning and trains them to ask, ‘What do I need to actually solve this problem?’ ”


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