I spy ISCI – and so do eager science students

Although Brittany Solomon was planning to enter a biomedical sciences program at York University, the young science enthusiast was disappointed to realize that her first-year course requirements wouldn’t allow her the leeway to include a physics class in her schedule. Then, she discovered ISCI (pronounced I-Sigh).

“It was hard, going into first year, to choose one science, and through ISCI, I could take all the sciences,” Solomon said.

ISCI, or the Integrated Science program, is a select, first-year program for high-achieving, dedicated science students. Up to 50 incoming science students are selected to be part of a cohort that spends the first year studying biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics in an integrated fashion. The faculty co-ordinate the delivery of material in their individual subjects, allowing knowledge from each individual discipline to deepen the understanding of the others. Classes in each discipline refer to and reflect the others.

ISCI Students from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 cohorts. Photo by Lauren Grant

Funded by an Academic Innovation Fund grant, ISCI was developed under the aegis of Professor Peter Cribb with assistance from participating faculty and an educational developer, Lauren Grant. It launched in the fall of 2016 under the leadership of Tamara Kelly, the undergraduate program director for the Department of Biology. The second cohort of ISCI students began the program in 2017.

“There were two major ideas behind developing ISCI,” said Kelly, who is also an associate lecturer in biology. “We thought high-performing students might want a more challenging environment and it was valuable for them to see the links between disciplines. In the Faculty of Science, we were also trying to work on improving our teaching, and this collaborative program offers the opportunity to learn new teaching strategies that faculty can bring back to their own departments.”

Grant, who worked on ISCI from its inception, says she and a committee of faculty members from all five departments (the four disciplines, plus science and technology studies) met regularly to structure the program and incorporate active learning techniques. Grant researched course content by looking at textbooks from each of the subjects for commonalities and connections and contacted other universities with integrated science programs (e.g., UBC, Dalhousie) to see how their programs operated. She also worked with a committee of students to get suggestions about connecting the disciplines from the learner’s point of view.

“Some universities, such as McMaster, have a four-year integrated science program, so York wanted to stay competitive,” Grant said. “It’s also a great way to motivate teaching innovation and allow it to happen on a small scale. If it works, you can try it on a larger scale.”

For students, the small class size – no more than 50 students – was a real draw.

“The small class size was very appealing,” said Karin Saltoun, currently a second-year biophysics student. “I had heard that university classes were larger, and I wasn’t sure about the transition from high school to being essentially on your own.”

Having been through ISCI, Saltoun can’t praise the experience highly enough.

“I made a lot of really great friends, even though many of them are now in different programs,” she said. “I also got to know the faculty a lot better and vice-versa. They know our personal strengths and weaknesses and helped us make connections with research labs.

“Our class became a support group for each other. We would remind each other about homework and discuss approaches. If someone was overwhelmed, we’d help out.”

In addition, exposure to all of the disciplines in an integrated fashion helped Saltoun clarify her own interests and decide on a biophysics major.

“I had planned to study biomedical science, but I found that in group work, I always gravitated toward math and physics questions,” she said.

ISCI classes are taught in a less conventional, active learning style and each class contains common components. No matter which subject they’re learning, for example, students do homework related to the upcoming topics beforehand and complete a short assessment at the start of each class to determine how much and which concepts they understand. As a result, the professors are able to tailor their lectures to the needs of the students.

“There were lots of ways for professors to check on what we were learning to make sure we understood,” Solomon said.

She is delighted to have been part of ISCI.

“It definitely exceeded my expectations,” she said. “It set me up for second year, and I developed a really great work ethic from Day One.

“The program enhanced our understanding of the material, avoided repetition and allowed us to move on to more challenging topics. It was work-intensive, but worth the effort. I think it’s designed for students who really love science and want to push themselves.”

Tamara Kelly

Kelly says ISCI has also been a real learning experience for faculty members. The team members meet weekly to discuss the program and how to improve it.

“Only two of us had experience with active learning, but all of us embraced it,” she said. “It’s not all about the instructor; our classes are very student-centred.”

ISCI has grown in popularity from 23 students in its inaugural year to 37 students this year, with dozens of applications requesting admission to the 2018 cohort. Once the new Markham campus of YorkU opens, all first-year science students there will also be enrolled in ISCI.

“It’s definitely working,” Grant said. “The goal has been to have a consistent curriculum structure across all four courses, and the structure has been new for some of the faculty, but everyone who signed on wanted to do it and is on board with trying new things.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer

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