Course: ISC231
Instructor: Peter Andolfatto, Jennifer Claire Gadd, Thomas Gregor, Joshua William Shaevitz, Quan Wang, Eric Francis Wieschaus
F 2016-2017

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

ISC motivates students to approach science with a research mindset - problems and topics tend to be open-ended and explorative rather than procedural, collaboration and seeking help is encouraged, and concepts are combined in creative ways. The course is not organized into biology, physics, and chemistry sections, but rather by mathematical concept. In each unit, new math concepts are introduced then put into the context of various physical, biophysical, and (sometimes) chemical problems. Lectures introduce a concept and then precept will typically look at a harder application of this problem. The course begins with basic, single-order differential equations, followed by second-order differential equations and oscillators (damped and harmonic) and then statistical mechanics. The time commitment is challenging and peer collaboration is crucial; the course isn’t designed to be completed alone, and one gains a lot from collaborative discussions.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

The first half of the semester (until fall break) follows the COS126 curriculum as well as the PHY/CHM/MOL lectures. The COS126 lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays are not necessary. It is entirely possible to learn the necessary COS curriculum solely from the textbook and video lectures, both of which are very clear (the former is more comprehensive). Monday, Wednesday, and Friday lectures are PHY/CHM/MOL and are taught by one professor most of the time, but sometimes other professors will come to expose you to their research or problems/topics related to what they research. Precepts are half COS and half PHY/CHM/MOL. After fall break, you will switch to entirely PHY/CHM/MOL lectures and precepts. During the PHY/CHM/MOL lectures, it is most important to have a conceptual understanding of the larger picture rather than necessarily following all the details of the derivation. It is not necessary to write down everything on the board. Do not get discouraged if you are lost in a derivation, just try and take a step back to see the larger concepts, because you can get the finer points from the lecture notes. Often, reading over the lecture notes clarify or reinforce understanding significantly. PHY/CHM/MOL precepts are unusual in that new content is introduced. Precepts take lecture concepts to a new level with more complex problems. Try to get a sense of how to approach problems and appreciate connections between the ideas presented, because likewise, it is not necessary to follow every line. It is really easy to get lost in the math and start spacing out, but it is worth it to try and stay engaged, because the problems are really interesting and can sometimes be very helpful for solving problem set questions. A good way to stay engaged is by asking questions. It is very easy to feel as though your questions are stupid because the room is entirely silent so you assume that people are following, but in reality the question you want to ask is probably something that someone else was confused about as well. This is especially true if you are trying to follow a derivation and the math seems a little shifty because it is entirely possible that something was miswritten or there were steps skipped. Once you shift into precepts being exclusively the ISC portion (not COS), there will be breaks halfway through, and that is a great time to talk to the preceptors one-on-one about the larger concepts or specific steps in the derivations that you didn’t understand. The preceptors also hold office hours. The ISC labs are really fantastic, well designed and fun. In-lab, the instructors (Jenn Gadd and Quan Wang) as well as the grad student TAs are super nice and helpful if you have any questions. They are especially happy to talk to you if you are curious about how a specific task works, or why you are doing something. Take advantage of being able to talk to them about the science behind the labs, because it can be really interesting and sometimes can help with lab write-ups. Don’t underestimate the time required to write the lab report, especially the MATLAB script. It is important to be meticulous with figures and their captioning, which in terms of grading, is more important than the text.

Learning For and From Assignments

For the problem sets, collaboration is important. Get started early as they are time consuming, and you learn a lot more with time to brood over the questions rather than having the solution hastily explained in an hour of desperation. Some people may begin to LaTeX their work, which makes submissions look highly aesthetic, but is time consuming, and there’s no need to be pressured to do the same; most students just handwrite the problems. LaTeX is fairly straightforward to learn in your own time. There are problem set sessions, which are held on Wednesday evenings with a grad student TA. There are two TAs and they will choose how they choose to split the problem sets, but they are also your graders. If you are uncertain about what a question is asking, by all means ask them! They are the people who determine the point breakdown and they are there to help you. It is helpful if you have at least looked through the problems, and possibly started them, so that you have some concrete questions to ask during the session. The TAs are also typically very open to meeting with you one-on-one and going over specific problems or questions if you are still confused on Thursday before the p-set is due on Friday. While grading for the most part is fair, there will be some moments when a point may have been taken off by mistake, or maybe you think that you should have gotten more partial credit. If this happens, you can meet with the grader and ask why something was graded the way that it was. There is no guarantee that you will get the point back, but if you legitimately think you deserve the point, then you can always try. Lab reports are typically MATLAB heavy. Don’t forget that neither MATLAB nor programming experience is a prerequisite. Many tips, techniques, and built-in functions for extremely specific objectives exist online; both the documentation and informal platforms like MATLAB Central are great. LaTeXing is much more common with lab reports, but again it is not at all necessary. There is no grading advantage to LaTeXing your lab reports, the content is far more important, so stick to Microsoft Word (or whatever word processor you use) if you are more comfortable with it. Lab office hours can be great opportunities to ask questions about lab report guidelines or data analysis, but are also a really good way to force yourself to start working on the lab report and prevent procrastination. Lab reports take A LOT of time; do not procrastinate on them; start early. In preparation for exams, it’s more important to have an understanding and intuition of the concepts than knowing formulae and minutiae. Do the problems in the notes, including reviewing those from problem sets, as there may be some explicitly be on the test, and otherwise will help you get mindset of hard problem solving. It can be helpful to work through problems with someone and be exposed to different ways of solving and combining ideas. Cheat sheets are allowed for the exams. Different people emphasize different things, but it can be helpful to include important formulae and also example problems.

External Resources

This class has an amazing support network, both due to the small class size and to the many enthusiastic alumni. It is easy to develop close relationships with instructors and upperclass mentors. Check out when group tutoring is scheduled (several days of the week); these are led by past students who can not only provide academic help (MATLAB/LaTeX tricks, problem-solving approaches, etc.) but also general advice on the course and Princeton. The TAs are very helpful with the problem sets. Make friends with the tutors and TAs! Lab office hours are great for image/data analysis and other problems. One-on-one tutoring is also available. One thing that students in general do not take advantage of in this class is the amazing faculty. ISC is lucky to have multiple professors on staff, in addition to the 4 TAs (2 lab, 2 problem set) and 2 preceptors, and they are all doing super interesting research. All of these people are more than willing to set up one-on-one meetings with you if you need help with material, or just want to learn about what they do. Professors are very helpful after lecture, or if you make appointments with them to talk through the material. Sometimes lecture can be too fast or was explained in a weird way, so don’t be afraid to ask questions after lecture or shoot the professor an email and ask questions one-on-one during a meeting. This is especially true for the professors who may only teach one week of lectures and then have a few problems specific to their field of research on the problem set for that week. The problem set graders may not be acquainted with this specific field, so it can be useful to go to that professor and ask about topics covered in lecture or about the problems in particular. Most of all, take advantage of the amazing opportunity that ISC gives you to interact with an extremely wide spectrum of brilliant researchers. It’s also important to know how to seek out resources independently on the internet, especially for MATLAB and LaTeX tricks. If something interests you, read up on it!

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

ISC is indeed challenging and a substantial time commitment, but don’t be put off by its reputation. If you have a true interest in science (especially in biophysics) and are willing to invest the effort, you can succeed in the course while maintaining balance. The class is immersive and there’s much to be gained from the social experience. Enjoy, because some beautiful ideas are presented.
An Integrated, Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences I

Add a Strategy or Tip