Ground-breaking program centred on student choices

In Integrated Sciences, students tailor their course of study to pursue a path of interdisciplinary discovery

by Andy Poon staff writer

In only its second year, the Integrated Sciences Program (ISP) has garnered strong support from students and faculty alike, spawning a student association devoted to the program and winning high praise from participants for its flexible and highly interactive teaching approach.

By giving students the chance to learn "things that will stay" with them, the unique program offered by the Faculty of Science has quickly become one of the most popular undergraduate learning environments on campus.

"In a lot of the more traditional courses, what we often end up doing is just memorizing facts and then forgetting them soon after," says Yvette Lu, a fourth-year Science student in ISP. "It is very important to learn how to approach problems and analyse things from an interdisciplinary point of view --to learn things that will stay with you after the course. That's what ISP does."

ISP's approach is to give students the flexibility to build a personalized interdisciplinary course of study that reflects their career interests. Students can select courses offered by various departments along with specially designed upper-level integration courses on topics that incorporate material from a broad range of disciplines.

These courses are designed to help students develop skills in science, teamwork and communication. For example, ISCI 311, "The Size of Things," examines the consequences of size and scale on biological, chemical, physical and geographical processes in nature.

"The integration courses put students in an environment where the subjects are less important. Rather it is the cross-disciplinary and discovery approach that is important," says ISPdirector, Zoology Prof. John Gosline.

ISP is offered as an option for students in the last two years of their four-year Science undergraduate degree program.

Successful applicants must clearly show why they wish to pursue the program: an essay on their educational goals, a complete history of course-work completed, and an outline of the courses that they will need to take to achieve their goals are necessary components of their application.

"One of the things about ISP is that it is student-centred and the professors are very open to what we have to say," says Lu. "We design our programs, we pick the courses we want to take but we have to have a clear line of thought behind our choices."

The 21-year-old--who plans on pursuing a career in medicine--is the president of the Integrated Sciences Association, an AMS-registered student association that was created by students in the inaugural ISP class.

"We want to see if we can keep the bond that was established in that first Integrated Science course -- because if we can keep that, the discussions will remain rich in and outside the classroom," says Lu.

Gosline, who collaborates with associate dean of Science Lorne Whitehead to teach an integration course on scientific measurement, says that the courses' interactive format allows the professors to learn from students and each other.

"The students see us working together to come to an understanding right in front of them -- there's no script in advance but instead we work at the problems together in front of the students and with the students," says Gosline.

That sense of spontaneity and discovery will be tested even further when Earth and Ocean Sciences Assoc. Prof. Kurt Grimm leads a group of ISP students to the Baja Peninsula in February.

During the field course, students will work on their own research projects to study earth as an integrated living system, work on group exercises and teach each other what they have learned.

"That's where the magic really happens--when the students start teaching each other and their instructors," says Grimm. "Once they learn the nuts and bolts, you can see them make that leap and start engaging in that process of discovery."