In January of 2011, iCons Program Director and Chemistry Professor, Dr. Scott Auerbach, observed in awe as the first cohort of iCons students brought the first iCons course to life. “Standing in that room and listening to those students, I realized in the deepest part of my heart and mind that we were on the right track,” he said. “It was better than we ever could have hoped.”
From a radical idea first proposed in 2008, iCons has evolved into a living, breathing academic program that has uprooted expectations about what undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are capable of achieving. Students in iCons have learned how to integrate knowledge to solve problems as part of interdisciplinary teams, conducted research on issues from endocrine disruption to the fate of nanoparticles in photovoltaics, and learned how to communicate about their work with poise and professionalism. Here’s how it all happened...
Key moments in iCons History:
Summer 2008 – UMass Amherst Alumnus, Richard Mahoney (B.S. Chemistry, 1955) was present at the creation of iCons with his gift to support the initial program development.
Background: The Integrated Science Building was the brainchild of Mr. Mahoney and his brothers who helped to fund this cutting-edge, interdisciplinary science facility, which opened in January 2009. In advance of the ISB opening, Mr. Mahoney asked a key question: “Great that the building says ‘Integrated’ on the outside, but what are you doing differently on the inside?” Our answer is the Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) Program.
Fall 2008 – College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) Dean James Kurose appoints chemistry professor Scott Auerbach to serve as the iCons Program’s founding director.
January 2009 – Director Auerbach recruits a diverse faculty team to serve on the iCons Program Steering Committee. According to Dr. Auerbach, “I was looking for research-active faculty members with interdisciplinary interests, but who also had passion for undergraduate teaching. I knew that the combination of interdisciplinary research and undergraduate education would be a wonderfully explosive mixture.”
In short order, this faculty team crafted the iCons mission statement: To produce the next generation of leaders in science and technology with the attitudes, knowledge, and skills needed to solve the inherently multi-faceted problems facing the world.
April 2009 – College of NSM Dean James Kurose, iCons Director Scott Auerbach, and a delegation from UMass Amherst travel to Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA to learn about best practices in problem-based, student-driven, team-based learning in science and engineering.
June 2009 – The Colleges of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) and Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) merge to form a new, mega-college of Natural Sciences (CNS), including the Psychology Department. The Dean of this newly formed College of Natural Sciences, Dr. Steve Goodwin, takes the fledgling iCons Program under his wing, working with Director Scott Auerbach to bring the program from an innovative idea to a cutting-edge creation.
July 2009 – Dean Steve Goodwin and Director Scott Auerbach report to Mr. Mahoney on progress in developing iCons. After performing a national study in interdisciplinary science programs, Dr. Auerbach and iCons Program coworkers found that no four-year science program yet exists that balances the need for disciplinary expertise and interdisciplinary problem solving.
January 2010 – The iCons Program is awarded two instrumental grants – $50,000 from the Dreyfus Foundation Special Grant Fund to develop iCons case studies, and $60,000 from UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert Holub’s Revenue Generating Grant Fund to launch iCons – giving the administrative green light to actually launch the iCons Program!
September 2010 – The iCons Program launches, and begins accepting applications from freshmen and sophomore science and engineering majors.
December 2010 – Orientation is held for the first cohort (class of 2014) of iCons students – the “First Class” – featuring “Cholera in Haiti” as first case study.
The first iCons t-shirts are awarded, beginning an annual tradition of naming each iCons class. Subsequent classes are named the “Second Wave,” “Third Axis,” and “Fourth Dimension.”
January 2011 – Professors Justin Fermann (Chemistry), Sue Leschine (Veterinary and Animal Sciences), and Steve Petsch (Geosciences) teach the first iCons 1 class.
July 2011 – Chemical & Engineering News publishes a feature story about the launch of the iCons Program, sent to the ~160,000 members of the American Chemical Society, the largest professional organization in the world.
October 2011 – Dean of Science, Dr. Tom Rizzo, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, visits Amherst to learn about the iCons Program, inspired by the article in Chemical & Engineering News. Dean Rizzo plans an overhaul of science at the EPFL, and plans to use the iCons Program as a model for this innovation.
January 2012 – Holyoke Community College, to develop new Renewable Energy Laboratory courses. At UMass Amherst, the new lab course is the iCons 3 Renewable Energy Lab.
January 2012 – Professors Dhandapani (“DV”) Venkataraman (Chemistry), Scott Auerbach (Chemistry), Scott Garman (Biochemistry), and Bob Zimmermann (Biochemistry) collaborate to launch iCons 2 with sections in Biomedicine/Biosystems (health of people, health of the planet) taught by Bob and Scott G., and Renewable Energy taught by Scott A. and DV. The iCons Mentoring Program is also launched, wherein iCons 2 students work with and mentor iCons 1 students. This program eventually morphs to “The iCons Forum: Of, By, and For iCons Students.”
May 2012 – The Renewable Energy Debate, the final project in iCons 2 Renewable Energy, debuts to a packed house of iCons students and faculty in the Integrated Science Building auditorium. Teams argue for Wind, Nuclear, and Solar energy. By an audience pre/post vote, the Wind Team wins the First Annual Energy Debate in a landslide.
January 2013 – Professors Ned Young (Biology) and Mark Tuominen (Physics) launch iCons 3 Laboratory with sections in Biomedicine/Biosystems (taught by Ned) and Renewable Energy (taught by Mark). The iCons 3 Biomed lab follows the pedagogy of the Biology 383H course developed by Prof. Elsbeth Walker, entitled “Gene and Genome Analysis,” developed in 2005-2006 with Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding. The iCons 3 Energy lab is funded by the National Science Foundation grant awarded in January 2012.
March 2013 – The first iCons Video is produced, making a breakthrough in telling the iCons story through the voices of its students.
May 2013 – The first four graduates of the iCons Program (who joined in Fall 2010 as sophomores) – Ryan Burke, Nicole Foxworth, Isaac Han, and Alex Wesselhoeft – defend their iCons senior theses on subjects ranging from epidemiology in Haiti, to the mass transport of metastasizing cancer cells, in grand style.
August 2013 – Waters Corporation becomes the first corporate sponsor of the iCons Program. Chief Technology Officer Dan McCormick hails the iCons Program as the future of STEM learning in higher education.
January 2014 – Professors Courtney Lannert (Physics) and Om Parkash (Stockbridge School) launch the iCons 4 Senior Integrative Science culminating research experience, leading to the iCons 4 Student Research Showcase.
February 2014 – The American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) publishes a feature story on the iCons Program structure, sent to the 30,000 leading lights in American higher education.
March 2014 – Lauren Mullin, senior scientist from Waters Corporation, visits the iCons 1 classroom to launch the first ever Waters/iCons case study. The inaugural case study focuses on Tainted Baby Formula in China and Other Unknown Unknowns.
May 2014 – The Boston Business Journal publishes a feature on the partnership between iCons and Waters Corporation, focusing on the new Waters/iCons case study and how this innovation is pushing forward the frontier of university-industry relations.
May 2014 – Chemical & Engineering News publishes a feature on how iCons is uniquely preparing students for success in the pharmaceutical industry.
May 2014 – The First (full) Class of iCons scholars graduates during a special ceremony following the First Annual iCons Senior Research Exposition, showcasing the students’ iCons 4 research-based thesis projects.
The Senior Expo featured talks by honored students Austin Barnes, Ayesha Sundaram, Kevin Cavanaugh, and Seamus Hughes. At the celebration dinner, the founding donor, Mr. Richard Mahoney, offers words of wisdom through a video sent from St. Louis. All these iCons scholars are employed in internships, graduate schools, medical schools, or jobs upon graduation, and all gave alumni gifts upon their graduation.
What a long strange trip it's been!