The Development of Integrated Introductory Science Courses

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Title of Abstract: The Development of Integrated Introductory Science Courses

Name of Author: David Hansen
Author Company or Institution: Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Development of Integrated Introductory Science Courses
Keywords: Integrated, Introductory, Biology, Chemistry, Physics

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Bryan Thines, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The W.M. Keck Science Department is the interdisciplinary home to all biology, chemistry, environmental science, and physics faculty for Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, three of the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges. Since 2005, the department has been involved in the creation and teaching of introductory interdisciplinary science courses, efforts that dovetail with the “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians” report produced in 2009 by a joint committee of the AAMC and HHMI ( and its call to begin “breaking down barriers among departments.... Indeed, the need for increased scientific rigor and its relevance to human biology is most likely to be met by more interdisciplinary courses.” Likewise, “Project Kaleidoscope Phase IV: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning” brought 30 colleges and universities from across the country together between 2008 and 2010 with the goal of determining how to “build a curriculum and culture supportive of interdisciplinarity” in STEM ( These calls to action were of course echoed in recommendations included in the 2011 “Vision and Change” report. For example, “Curriculum committees might focus on strategies for utilizing core concepts to organize new programs that integrate various disciplines...” (page 18). And as stated in the “the most important recommendation of all” (page 58): “As biology faculty, we need to put the ‘depth versus breadth’ debate behind us.... A more tenable approach is to recast the focus of biology courses and curricula on the conceptual framework on which the science itself is built and from which discoveries emerge. Such a focus is increasingly interdisciplinary, demands quantitative competency, and requires the instructor to use facts judiciously as a means of illustrating concepts rather than as items to be memorized in isolation.”

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: In fall 2007, the department first offered its “Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence” (AISS), which is now about to enter its seventh year of instruction. The year-long course enrolls 28 first-year students and is team-taught by three Keck Science faculty: a biologist, a chemist, and a physicist. The course is accelerated in that it presents in two double-credit lab-based courses the principles and findings that would otherwise span the equivalent of the year-long courses in introductory biology, chemistry, and physics. By integrating core principles, students greatly broaden their understanding of natural phenomena. In the sequence “forces to membranes,” a discussion of the atomic theory leads to fundamental forces then to intermolecular forces and finally to lipid-bilayer membranes. Principles are also discussed in parallel: the topics covered in the “negative feedback” module include the simple harmonic oscillator, Le Chatelier’s principle, diffusion, and population dynamics. While the development of AISS has been a significant undertaking, substantial benefit may be gained as well by combining just two disciplines. In particular, students would not need extensive high school preparation in math and science to enroll in such a course. In fall 2012, therefore, the department launched its “Introduction to Biological Chemistry” (IBC) class. This one-semester double-credit non-accelerated class, which is co-taught by a biologist and a chemist, covers all of the key topics in the department’s first-semester general chemistry and introductory biology courses while highlighting areas of overlap and striving to enhance the interdisciplinary thinking. For example, because students are first given an appreciation of chemical structure and quantum mechanics, they are able to describe how each participating redox center in photosynthesis facilitates the overall process. The class meets for six hours of lecture each week and also includes a full laboratory component.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: To date, Dr. David Drew (Professor of Education and Management, School of Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University) and his research group in the have conducted three formal assessments of the AISS program: “AISS Evaluation Report: Cohort I Student Profile and Early Trends” (February 2008), “AISS Evaluation Report Year 2: Longitudinal Trends and Cohort Patterns (March 2009),” and “AISS Evaluation Report Year 3: Tracing the Impact of AISS on Three Student Cohorts” (March 2010). In a report to be submitted in fall 2013, Dr. Drew and his group will continue their longitudinal assessment of AISS, including an analysis of the impact of AISS on students who have now graduated from college, and will also provide an assessment of the inaugural offering of IBC from this past fall.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The ongoing assessment of AISS reveals that students who have completed AISS are retained in science majors at a high rate and succeed in advanced courses. AISS students, on average, take a greater number of advanced science courses and earn grades in those courses that are at least as high as earned by a comparison cohort. Faculty in upper-division courses report that former AISS students continue to pose questions that require multidisciplinary answers. Although IBC has been taught only one time to date and has yet to be formally assessed, many students accepted into the inaugural offering had, as anticipated, high school preparations that would not have made them eligible to enroll in AISS.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The Project Kaleidoscope Phase IV report indicates that a hurdle for interdisciplinary programs is institutionalization. Many programs do not advance past the pilot stage because to do so “involves having the campus commit to the program, reviewing the evidence of its success then refining infrastructure and resource requirements, and persisting in supporting it over the long haul.” AISS is unusual, then, because it has moved through the most challenging parts of the institutionalization phase: it has been reviewed and refined on a continuous basis with the help of the external annual evaluations, and the department’s three sponsoring colleges have committed to the program. Nonetheless, the course is quite expensive to run (three full-time faculty lines - one each in biology, chemistry, and physics - devoted to the 28 students in the class), and whether the AISS model can be extended to other institutions remains to be seen. Our IBC course, on the other hand, may be more transferable as it is offered only in the fall semester and is co-taught by two, rather than three, faculty members.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The AISS program has been described in two publications in national journals of science education: “Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence: An Interdisciplinary Introductory Course for Science Majors,” Copp, N.H.; Black, K.; Gould, S.; The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education 2012, 11, A76-A81, and “Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence (AISS): An Introductory Biology, Chemistry, and Physics Course,” Purvis-Roberts, K.L.; Edwalds-Gilbert, G.; Landsberg, A.S.; Copp, N.; Ulsh, L.; Drew, D.E.; Journal of Chemical Education 2009, 86, 1295-1299. Websites have been established that described the AISS ( and IBC ( courses. In addition, in summer 2014 or 2015, the Keck Science Department will host a national conference to which interdisciplinary teaching teams from institutions across the spectrum of higher education will be invited.

Acknowledgements: We are most grateful to the National Science Foundation (DUE 0525574) and to the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation for financial support.