Diversity and Democracy

Global Problems as a Framework for Integrated STEM Learning in the First Year

Photo courtesy of the University of Richmond

Students in the first-semester IQS lab load an agarose gel to analyze genes from antibiotic resistant bacteria. (Photo courtesy of the University of Richmond.)

The major scientific challenges of the twenty-first century will require interdisciplinary teams to collaborate using tools from a variety of disciplines. Seeking a way to prepare students for this kind of work, a team of faculty members at the University of Richmond (UR) developed a first-year course called Integrated Quantitative Science (IQS). The course incorporates first-semester content in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science in one fully integrated experience that composes half of a student's academic schedule in both semesters of the first year.

IQS, which includes a hypothesis-driven lab, a workshop, and a double lecture, requires a minimum of nine contact hours per week. Ten faculty members—one from each of the five disciplines in each semester—teach the course to twenty students a year. Upon completing the course, these students have explored fundamental concepts in each discipline and are ready for further study in any one of them. They can also continue their interdisciplinary inquiry through various research projects and an integrated science minor, which features courses like Biological Imaging or Math Models in Biology and Medicine. In this article, we describe the IQS's creation and the benefits it derives from being organized around the global scientific challenges that humankind faces today.

Major Societal Questions

At UR, we have found that students' interest increases when topics allow them to engage in major societal questions. We thus organized each semester of IQS around a societally relevant theme. Based on participating faculty members' expertise, we selected antibiotic resistance as the first semester's organizing topic and cell signaling and communication, with its ties to understanding disease, as the second semester's.

One of the course's primary goals is to train students to think like scientists. The course thus emphasizes inquiry-based pedagogy through workshop and laboratory sessions. In the first semester, students conduct a multiweek, multidisciplinary experiment to develop their understanding of antibiotics. They learn mathematical modeling, computational simulation, and experimental approaches to mutation rates. They also conduct a theoretical and computational study of conformational flexibility—that is, the motions of antibiotic molecules. In addition, students perform a series of experiments aimed at discovering new antibiotic-resistant bacteria known to have symbiotic relationships with marine sponges. This requires students to write computer code comparing their experimental results with genetic information found using key bioinformatics tools. In the second semester, students participate in a multiweek laboratory module where they explore how immune cells are activated and how they respond to infection. Image processing (as related to magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI) and HIV protease drug design, as well as resistance and reaction rates, are other major focal points.

Lectures lay the groundwork for this experimental inquiry by introducing key concepts from each discipline within the context of the umbrella theme. For example, in the first semester, an introduction to evolution by natural selection leads to a discussion of antibiotic resistance. The study of antibiotics facilitates learning about bonding, diffraction, spectroscopy, energy minimization algorithms, and Monte Carlo methods, and students learn mathematical modeling in the context of how infection spreads in hospitals. In the second semester, students begin exploring cell signaling by learning how to use integral calculus to analyze how signals accumulate to a threshold. They study random walks and diffusion as mechanisms for transporting signals within particular pathways, kinetics and thermodynamics in the context of HIV protease, and rotational kinematics and image processing in the context of MRI. Through these topics, the course emphasizes quantitative reasoning, algorithmic processes, and mathematical models to a greater extent than is typical in traditional science courses. After all, the big problems confronting humankind will only become tractable with improved designs, techniques, instrumentation, models, and algorithms generated through interdisciplinary thinking.

Supports and Challenges

Embarking on a project of this magnitude requires multiple layers of support. UR secured funding for the project through a science education grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), building on past HHMI and Merck-American Association for the Advancement of Science grants that supported upper-level course development and interdisciplinary research projects (Caudill et al. 2010). In addition, the project aligned with UR's strategic plan, the team had strong administrative support, and each of the five departments agreed that students completing IQS would be prepared to advance to the second course in their majors. Perhaps most important was the support of the talented, creative faculty who developed and taught the course. The faculty team was also fortunate to be selected for the Keck/Project Kaleidoscope Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning project (Keck/Project Kaleidoscope 2010), which connected its members to a network of twenty-eight schools working on aspects of interdisciplinary undergraduate education.

Despite these strengths, the course was not without challenges during its first year. As expected, integrating the material at a high level was challenging, as was coordinating team teaching among five faculty members. In the second year, the team built reassigned time into faculty schedules to allow for further integration, and the adjustment to team teaching will likely be smoother in the second iteration. Overall, faculty teaching the course have responded positively to their experiences.

Assessing Outcomes

The faculty team is thrilled with preliminary measures of success. Ninety-five percent of students enrolled in IQS participated in a full-time summer research experience at UR, and 83 percent are now taking an interdisciplinary research training seminar (part of our integrated science minor). Interest in IQS has grown beyond what we can accommodate, and at least four faculty members began new interdisciplinary research projects as a result of their involvement in the course.

To measure students' perceived learning gains, the team used the Research on the Integrated Science Curriculum (RISC) survey, available at http://www.grinnell.edu/academic/psychology/faculty/dl/risc. In their responses, students reported strong learning gains on items from the related Survey on Undergraduate Research (SURE), available at http://www.grinnell.edu/academic/psychology/faculty/dl/surecure. In fact, in almost all areas, IQS students reported benefits well above average for RISC and SURE comparison groups. Particularly strong were skills in interpretation of results, readiness for more demanding research, ability to integrate theory and practice, and understanding of how scientists work on real problems.

More targeted assessments will be possible as more students take IQS and as students advance further in their educations. For now, we at UR are excited to see the preliminary outcomes from this deliberate integration of STEM disciplines in the context of global issues, both in the classroom and in the undergraduate research experience.

The authors wish to acknowledge the UR faculty members who participated in creating IQS: April Hill and Krista Stenger, Department of Biology; Lisa Gentile and Carol Parish, Department of Chemistry; Lester Caudill, Mike Kerckhove, Barry Lawson, and Doug Szajda, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science; and Ted Bunn, Mirela Fetea, and Ovidiu Lipan, Department of Physics.


Caudill, Lester, April Hill, Kathy Hoke, and Ovidiu Lipan. 2010. "Impact of Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research in Mathematics and Biology on the Development of a New Course Integrating Five STEM Disciplines." CBE Life Sciences Education 9 (3): 212-16.

Keck/Project Kaleidoscope. 2010. "Transformative Change in STEM Education: Leadership for Advancing Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Learning." Notebook for the Keck/Project Kaleidoscope Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning National Colloquium.

Lisa Gentile is an associate professor of chemistry, and Kathy Hoke is an associate dean of Arts and Sciences, both of the University of Richmond.


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