Problems-Based Science Education: The iCons Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
The new Integrated Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as its name suggests, houses labs and classrooms for students and faculty from several departments. But some of the donors who had helped fund the new building expressed concern over whether the title “integrated” applied to more than just the array of departments represented in the building, says Scott Auerbach, a professor of chemistry. “One of the donors said, ‘I’m glad you have 'integrated' on the outside—are you teaching any differently on the inside? ... What are the pedagogical and curricular changes you can bring to do justice to that name?’”
At about the same time, the dean and faculty in what was then the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (now the College of Natural Sciences) were brainstorming how to bring some strengths of the school’s graduate programs—including a problems-based focus on energy, water, climate change, and biomedicine—to the undergraduate programs. A gift from the same concerned donor allowed the college to begin that process, and the result was iCons: the Integrated Concentration in Science. iCons is not a major but an additional set of interdisciplinary, problems-based courses for students already majoring in fields across the sciences, engineering, and public health. “It’s kind of like a minor superimposed on the major,” says Auerbach, who is now the director of iCons. “We’re not trying to rewrite the major—we’re embedding within it opportunities to take what students learn and apply it toward solving complicated, multifaceted problems.”
The Case Studies Method
With the seed money from a donor and widespread faculty buy-in, Auerbach was asked to lead a brainstorming process on how to improve undergraduate science programs. Faculty members were initially split on how best to improve undergraduate science programs. Some called for a redesign of first-year science courses, as students’ attitudes are often strongly shaped by their early experiences. Others argued that those changes would be undone by subsequent years of traditional pedagogy in siloed departments, and that it would be better to identify a smaller subset of potential leaders and work with them across all four years to inculcate interdisciplinary, problems-based attitudes about science.
It was the advice of an outside consultant that ultimately tipped the scales toward a program that would enroll a smaller subset of students for four years. “Our outside voice listened well and said, ‘whatever you do, you want to be successful, and to do that you have start small,’” Auerbach says. “If it is powerful, and there’s a chance to grow, it will do so organically.”
iCons was developed as a four-course sequence spanning first year through senior year. Students take one course during the second semester of the first, sophomore, and junior years and complete a yearlong independent research project during the senior year. Most of the courses, especially the first-year seminar, “Global Problems, Scientific Solutions,” use a case study model. Unlike typical law or business school case studies, where students eventually learn how actual practitioners solved a problem and compare those actions with their own hypothetical actions, iCons case studies focus on unsolved problems. It’s a departure from the way science is often taught, Auerbach says—“where the answer is in the back of the book and most students learn things solved a hundred years ago.” In real science, he says, “You have data, but you have to interpret it, and there’s debate about how to interpret it—and how do you solve a problem with it?”
The iCons case studies follow a set series of steps: inception, engagement, research, create, and reflection. Inception, the introduction of the problem, usually comes in the form of a newspaper or magazine article. “To understand the role of technology, we give science problems to students,” Auerbach says. “But every so often we should give them a social problem and challenge them to name the role of science.” One of the first case studies used in iCons was the cholera outbreak in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Teams of students were challenged to identify what role science could play in stopping the spread of the disease. One team came up with the idea of mapping the genome of the cholera strain in Haiti in order to track its spread; another team focused on using solar energy to sanitize water.
Students work collaboratively though the case study steps—engaging each other in discussion of the issue, conducting research on possible solutions, creating a model or position paper, and finally, reflecting on what they’ve achieved. That reflection is a crucial part of the process, says Hannah French, a junior environmental science major participating in iCons. “We always come back and ask if we did a good job as a team member ... what worked and what didn’t work in the project? What do we need to do differently next time? As students we should constantly be reflecting like this, in all our classes.”
Progressive Scaffolding and Reflective Assessment
The case studies model continues in the sophomore year with iCons 2: Integrative Science Communication. Students engage in debates, write position papers, and deliver presentations—assignments that give them practice explaining complex issues to different audiences. Debates are held before public audiences, and the position papers are shared with all iCons students. “We found that when work goes outside the classroom, the quality makes a quantum leap,” Auerbach says. “There’s a positive peer pressure, and students want to step it up.”
iCons 2 is also the first course where students move into separate tracks—either biomedicine or renewable energy—in which they complete the rest of their courses. Even within these divisions, though, there are many disciplines represented in the students, and there is educational value in this, says French. “When you work with students from all over the college of natural sciences, it brings a new level to case studies... I might have a math major in my group, and not only can she do the math required for the project really well, she can teach the rest of us how to do it.”
Pratiksha Yalakkishettar, a senior in the biomedicine track, agrees. While working on a lab project on endocrine disruptors with several other microbiology majors and a public health major, she found that “it was easy to get lost in the mechanism of the different chemicals and what they do in the body. The public health major provided a different perspective—we had to figure out not just how these chemicals work, but how to communicate to people that they are dangerous and give them the information they need to make educated decisions. I don’t know that I would have gotten that if we’d been doing this in a regular biology class.”
iCons 3: Team Discovery is also based on collaborative assignments, with junior students working together to complete research projects of their own choosing in a laboratory. In their senior year, students complete a yearlong independent research project. At that point, students are prepared to work with a great deal of independence. “We teach using differential scaffolding,” Auerbach says, with faculty members providing “the minimum amount of support to reach a goal—we don’t want to give too much support, but enough that the students aren’t mired in frustration. Through a given course, and throughout the program, we start with more scaffolding and move to less and less.”
iCons also uses a teaching and assessment approach based on unconstrained outcomes, Auerbach says. A traditional constrained outcomes course has “a list of concepts, skills, and knowledge the students need. If all students get an A, it’s because all students mastered the same list.” iCons removes the constraints—students work in teams and choose their own topics, so they all learn different content and sometimes different skills. “Some people are very adept at coding, others at math, and others are really good at asking the right questions, or at defining parameters... If they all put that together into a high-quality product, then all four students get As, even though they have different skills.”
Teamwork is an expected learning outcome for all students, though. “For me, one of the main challenges was learning how to work together effectively and be a leader,” says junior Kedar Mahagaokar. Even seemingly simple matters like formatting all parts of a presentation require a high level of communication and attention to detail. “That’s an important skill—working with others to produce a smooth, cohesive product.”
This approach can make assessment very difficult. “We need instructor, peer, and self-assessment of both the product and the process,” Auerbach says. “We want to see how they worked as a team, but also get their individual contributions.” The information for this assessment process is generated through student reflection—the final step of the iCons case studies model. Students document their reflections on what they’ve accomplished, what they might have done differently, and what they each contributed to the project and submit this to the faculty.
Limitations of Scale and Funding
Almost all iCons classes fulfill other general education or major requirements. iCons 2 fulfills the university’s requirement for an upper-level disciplinary writing course. iCons 3 fulfills the “Integrated Experience” requirement, and the fourth-year research project can also count as the required thesis for students enrolled in the Commonwealth Honors College. Science and engineering students in particular have packed schedules with all the requirements for their majors, not to mention jobs and extracurricular activities, Auerbach says, so iCons has to be carefully attuned to other requirements at the university.
There are also logistical difficulties on the staffing side. Laboratory research, writing assignments, class discussions—these features all require high levels of faculty interaction and feedback, so class sizes have to be relatively small. The program has run classes with up to sixty students, and could conceivably work with even larger classes, but it would be hard to scale up to hundreds of students. iCons 1 is staffed by two faculty members and a teaching assistant in order to provide perspectives from different scientific fields and model interdisciplinary teamwork and communication. Even the subsequent courses, which have only one instructor, still require faculty members to secure a course release from their home departments. Courses also have to run on a schedule that accommodates students from twenty different majors with separate time-intensive requirements. “People hear about this and think, ‘this is a great from a pedagogical standpoint, but it’s a terrible business model,” Auerbach says.
iCons makes up for its limited number of core faculty—and recruits more of them—by inviting faculty members to serve as guest participants in courses. Guests can bring timely expertise for a particular project—statistics, say, or mathematical modeling—and are often impressed enough with the students that they want to participate more in the future. Ultimately, though, the program has to raise more money to be viable. Funding from individual donors and from the National Science Foundation helped get the program started, but corporate support is keeping it going. Three companies have already made donations, and while Auerbach hopes to get more support from the university, he’s also looking for more corporate partners. “We send our students to these companies for internships and jobs, and they see the difference—they are willing to support the program in order to get us to produce more of these students. We had a visit from Proctor and Gamble, and one guy said, ‘I’m actually afraid of your students being hired by our competition.’ If what we’re doing brings so much value, then the stakeholders who benefit will support the program.”
Even institutions without deep pockets can adopt elements of the program, though. When Auerbach visits other campuses to talk about the iCons model, he advises them to start small. “Don’t start thinking about building a program, or even a new class. Start by taking an existing class, carve out three weeks, and run a case study ... follow our model or develop your own.... Do that a few times, get a feeling for how that works, and then you have your own pedagogical experience from which you can now imagine launching an entire course that is case study based.”