Introduction

The 4-year Honours Integrated Science (iSci) program instructional and administrative teams have collaborated, with student involvement, to design and implement an innovative program of research-focused interdisciplinary education that produces scientists skilled in research and communication and ready to enter a range of professional fields. Built out from student experience, collaborating across disciplinary boundaries and in ways that make program administrators and students partners in program development and delivery. The result is an exciting and innovative program focused on student learning instead of teaching, a program focused on outcomes instead of administrative limitations.

The iSci program creates an environment in which highly motivated students can learn science through stimulating interdisciplinary research projects that allow them to gain an appreciation of the links between scientific disciplines and to develop skills that prepare them well for a broad range of post-graduate options. iSci is a program tailored to be flexible, to adapt to the needs of students with various learning styles; it is a supportive program that encourages collaboration and mentoring between peers and professors. iSci is also viewed as an ‘experimental zone’ in which new pedagogical approaches can be invented, adopted, modified, and proven before being applied to other programs.

Synopsis

OBJECTIVE

The Integrated Science Program (iSci) was established in 2009 to develop future scientific leaders. The iSci mandate centres upon skill development - changing undergraduate education to more effectively focus upon the learner. Students learn through interdisciplinary research projects that require them to gain an appreciation for the links between scientific disciplines and to develop skills that prepare them for the demands of employment and graduate programs. The design of the projects necessitates a high level of collaboration between students and professors. An objective of the program is to create an environment in which students can learn that science needs creativity. Allowing students room to explore, promotes application, provides topic relevance and allows for personal discovery. A key foundation is interaction between students in multiple years of the Program. iSci is a program tailored to be flexible, to adapt to the needs of students with various learning styles; it is a supportive program that encourages communication at all levels. iSci is also viewed as an ‘experimental zone’ in which new pedagogical approaches can be invented, modified, and substantiated before application to other programs. The lessons learned from in iSci can be transferred to much larger undergraduate programs in the University.

APPROACH

“The research project as a vessel for delivering the curriculum is a radical method that I have found very valuable. The process of completing such a project demands personal commitment and dedication that ordinary university programs fail to invoke. The challenges that accompany these projects encourage cooperative learning and active problem-solving that are directly applicable to life out of university. By becoming engaged in these projects, I have the opportunity to address real scientific problems from a multitude of scientific perspectives; for this chance, I believe there is no substitute. (Alex D, iSci student)”

The design of the iSci program aligns curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and community in an approach we call Research-based Integrated Education (RIE). We use scaffolded research projects to motivate learning and integrate scientific disciplines with the elements of scientific exploration. Students explore areas that catch their personal interest within independent projects, and by using their electives to pursue a concentration (similar to joint Honours or double Major) in any scientific area. The lecture is NOT the norm in the iSci program; we integrate the classroom with the laboratory and field to motivate and support student learning via active experimentation. Students gain the knowledge directly related to core curricula and are provided the translational skills required to progress through their educational journey.

We front-load the first year of the program to equip our students with tools from all disciplines. Students learn core concepts through research projects that focus on topics with societal relevance (Fig. 1), combining group and individual learning activities with tailored assessments. As students progress in the Program, research projects offer increasing choice of topic, angle, and methods. Projects for the second year challenge students in a variety of interdisciplinary scientific topics from Thermodynamics and Neuroscience to Plant-Animal Interactions and the History of the Earth. Students choose their electives to study towards a ‘concentration’ in any scientific area, further adding to the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of their experience. The third year comprises three research projects and an independent project. In fourth year, students complete a senior thesis project and a seminar course on career-relevant topics such as proposal writing, business etiquette, the interview process, and resume writing.

“Where the iSci program truly excels is in developing an attitude for collaborative problem solving in students and it is this attitude that helped me standout in my research positions. The iSci curriculum has a strong focus on group research projects. In these projects, students learn to apply concepts taught in class and primary scientific literature to synthesize novel ideas and tackle open-ended research questions in modern science. While these projects are challenging, it is the iSci teaching team that makes them attainable and rewarding. Our professors give us guidance and feedback, as well as facilitate communication within and between groups. Furthermore, professors communicate frequently with one another to make sure students have the background knowledge needed to tackle research problems.” (Darren F, iSci alumnus)

The iSci Approach pays particular attention to assessment, combining traditional and ‘synoptic’ exams with highly varied project deliverables. Synoptic exams assess students’ ability to synthesize material and concepts from different disciplinary areas and consider new applications of fundamental concepts. Second year student assessments range from a published book on the History of Science; complete experimental investigations including experimental design, data analysis and writing a journal manuscript; to designing museum displays. Third year students are required to communicate complex scientific concepts to a general public audience via a podcast about Climate Change. These various forms of assessment are designed to reflect the learning objectives of each of the research projects, but more importantly, mimic the deliverables students will be need to generate as they move into employment or graduate school.

IMPACT

“Perhaps the best metric of the teaching team's effectiveness and the iSci program's success are the success stories of iSci students. Students from the Class of 2013 have worked/are working at institutions such as Harvard and Duke, companies such as AstraZeneca, and organizations such as Parks Canada and Environment Canada. I do not doubt that any quantitative metric involving leadership positions, research awards, grants, and publications, would feature iSci students at the top”. (Yohan Y, iSci alumnus)

The iSci Program impact has reach many levels: student learning, instructor pedagogy and not only the McMaster University approach to higher learning, but has motivated other institutions to initiate integrated science programs of their own.

For the students, the program has changed their perspective to learning – making learning a collaborative, highly interactive, yet personal, skill-based experience

“Being a student in the iSci program changed the way I think about the world and my approach to tackling problems. Within the program I was provided with a solid foundation in many areas of science and, arguably more important, a set of skills that I have been able to carry forward into my post-secondary education, which I know I will also take with me into my future career. While being a student in the program I learned how to think with an interdisciplinary mind and how to use my knowledge to work on real world problems. I also learned how to communicate effectively, how to work in teams, how to problem solve, and how to be a leader.” (Julianne B, iSci alumna)

For the instructors, the focus on interdisciplinary science encourages co-teaching, with multiple instructors present in the classroom or lab at any one time. Team-taught projects underline the integration and overlap of specific subjects facilitating student connections between disciplines. This has challenged professors that teach within the program, and their colleagues, to rethink the utility of traditional pedagogies, motivating them to embrace change!

As for the face of higher education, the iSci model has gotten much attention as one of McMaster’s flagship programs

but, it is also gaining international recognition, epitomised by winning the inaugural. Indeed, the iSci model is now transitioning to other institutions. We have consulted with the University of Guelph, Simon Fraser University, University of Ottawa, Western and York Universities about the design and delivery of our program. We have also been invited to give keynote addresses at pedagogical workshops in Canada and the US, as well as participate on a panel of consultants supporting pedagogical development in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The iSci Program at McMaster has greatly impacted the educational community. We are active members of noted educational societies and we know of and have studied various educational programs throughout the US and abroad; the iSci Program at McMaster is an educational icon. We need more programs like McMaster’s iSci Program, which successfully demonstrate the importance of team-based and project-based learning. We have great admiration and respect for the iSci Program and we appreciate all of the inspiration and support we have received from our colleagues at McMaster.” (Carolann Koleci and Eric Mazur, Dean of Applied Physics, Harvard)

ENGAGEMENT

We not only have a unique and innovative program but we also form a strong learning community – faculty, staff, and students work together, learn together, and support each other on our educational journey. We have integrated peer mentoring at all levels of the program starting even before incoming students arrive for their first term.

At the end of each year, the iSci community joins together in Synthesis, our student-organised academic conference. Students present peer-reviewed posters and talks, perform the peer-review process, invite guest speakers, and host conference panels. Level I students see senior colleagues present their research results, and all students have a chance to understand how an academic conference works.

BOTTOMLINE

We were given the remarkable opportunity to design an undergraduate degree program from a clean sheet. We responded to the challenge by building a program that produces not just well rounded, highly-trained graduates, but our future colleagues – young researchers, and leaders who can engage with the topics that our society needs.

Other Information

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