Course: ISC231
Instructor: Leifer
F 2014

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

The Integrated Science Curriculum (ISC) is a unique introductory science course that gives students a mathematically rigorous and quantitative background in physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science. The philosophy behind the course is to break down traditional barriers dividing the scientific disciplines, and appreciate the underlying connections and applications among them. The traditional physics student will learn topics like fluid dynamics and statistical mechanics, but the ISC physics student will be able to apply that knowledge to model circulatory systems to neuronal protein channels. The traditional biology student will memorize countless protein interaction pathways, but the ISC biology student will be able to mathematically and computationally model and characterize those interactions.

ISC is a course that builds upon itself as the year progresses. Although the lectures still start off seeming like standard physics curriculum, it will very quickly tie into future topics. The lectures on probability will be applied to statistical mechanics; the lectures on wave mechanics will be applied to electricity and magnetism; and all those topics combined will be applied to the final quantum mechanics lectures. Granted, the primary focus of the class is physics, but often taught in a way to be applied to biological and chemical systems. Lectures meet for 50 minutes every day Monday through Friday. There will be one lab and one precept per week, and a Wednesday night problem set session. For the first half of fall semester ISC students will attend the COS 126 lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Students planning on taking this course should be aware that the course moves at a very fast pace, and is notorious for being one of the most demanding and challenging courses at Princeton. A time commitment of 40 hours per week is no exaggeration. Although ISC is presented as an introductory science course, with the only requirement being some knowledge of calculus, a good amount of background knowledge is assumed in many areas. Having previously taken AP-level sciences courses in high school helps enormously. Although equivalency credit is received for PHY 103/104, CHM 201/202, MOL 214, and COS 126, a good deal of the content from these courses are not covered just due to practical time constraints (for example, rotational mechanics and most of biology), or very superficially brushed by in a single lecture or two (for example, electrochemistry and acid/base chemistry). ISC is more focused on learning how to tackle problems, and does not put much of an emphasis on memorization or knowing facts. However admirable a principle this may be, be aware that there is a lot of content that will be omitted from the curriculum that the traditional introductory sciences will cover—content that may have to be made up for upon entering higher level classes. On the other hand, ISC covers many topics that would not even be touched on in traditional introductory science courses—such as statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics—which will give ISC students an advantage in upper level sciences.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

The goals of ISC lectures are many, but perhaps the main purpose is to achieve a fundamental mathematical and physical understanding of each concept. The professor will not just simply write down the ideal gas law at the beginning of lecture—the lecture will build up from seemingly simple concepts to an intricate and elegant derivation. In this way, each lecture is almost like a revelation of some profound result (with some interesting science history thrown in). The pacing of the lessons are—to put it lightly—extremely fast-paced. Fortunately, the content can mostly be found in the lecture notes, available in its entirety at the start of the semester. To get the most out of the lectures, students should read the day’s lecture notes before class (and once after class for good measure). ISC is far from just theoretical derivations, though. The theory learned in class is often tied to experimental practice in lab. The lectures on Einstein’s diffusion relation are followed up by a lab reproducing Jean Perrin’s Nobel-winning experiment confirming Einstein’s theory. The lectures on probability are followed up by a lab reproducing the (also Nobel-winning) Luria-Delbruck experiment, using clever statistics to calculate mutation rates in yeast. The ISC labs are an invaluable tool for anyone interested in research, as it really throws the student into the process of collecting, analyzing, and presenting data. The first few lab reports will feel especially difficult, as students are not yet familiar with the software used to analyze data and draw figures (ImageJ and Matlab) and how to write in a scientific style, but by the end of the year, ISC students will have a huge advantage over traditional science students in doing and presenting research.

ISC precepts are meant to extend the theory taught in lecture and apply them by setting up, deriving, and solving (very difficult) equations related to real-world systems (for example, TIRF microscopy or the Ising model for ferromagnetism). The content covered in precept go way beyond what would ever be taught in an introductory science course (or sometimes even any undergraduate course, for that matter). Although much of it goes over the students’ heads, precepts teach how to tackle problems that have no “standard” solution: how to set up a differential equation, what strategies or clever tricks there are to solve them, how and when to make appropriate approximations. A common struggle is to know when to use certain mathematical tools to solve equations: how do you know to make a Taylor approximation here? How do you know to separate into independent variables here, or that a Fourier transform is useful there? By going through so many challenging problems, precept gives students exposure as to what tools and techniques are available and useful in what situations.

Learning For and From Assignments

The weekly problem sets are an essential component of learning in ISC. They are notoriously difficult, often “unconventional” problems. Whereas a traditional introductory science problem set will be about knowing facts or applying equations, ISC problem sets are far more open ended (for example, “how big can an organism be before it needs a circulatory system?” or “how many air molecules hit your hand every second?”). Such problems require students to independently set up equations, make appropriate approximations, and perform nonobvious mathematical manipulations. These are the type of skills that will be tested on the exams, which contain problems very similar to those found on problem sets.

Problem sets should always be worked on in groups—part of the spirit of ISC is that science is a collaborative process, gathering on the input of several minds. There is a required problem set session every Wednesday night (which inevitably turns to Thursday morning) where everyone gathers to work together. Having extra people around is especially useful when it is often the case that no one knows how to even start tackling the problem. People will approach the problems in several ways, and many of those ways will not lead to an answer. Though the failure is often dispiriting, it is really the struggle and the genuine effort students put in that help them grow and improve as scientific thinkers. As valuable as the collaboration is, however, students should be wary of relying too much on it—that is, giving up too easily on a problem and waiting until someone else figures out a solution. No one individual ever figures out the solution to every problem independently, but every individual should give their best try, even if it gets nowhere (it’s often just as valuable to know what not to do and why certain techniques don’t work). Problems often take a good deal of extra learning and research outside of what is covered in lecture and precept (a fact that is a common complaint among students).

Besides problem sets, the other main source of workload in ISC is the lab reports, due every other week. These lab reports are far beyond what is expected in any other introductory science class. Each ISC lab report is essentially a full scientific paper, with an introduction, methods, results and discussion, figures, and conclusion. The first few labs are especially challenging, as students are (often quite unpreparedly) thrown into performing data analysis with programs such as ImageJ and Matlab. In the past years, however, the lab curriculum has been revised to ease students in more smoothly (the first lab report, for example, only required an introduction, figures, and conclusion). There is, however, definitely still a period of adjustment for the first two lab reports. Expect to spend 20+ hours writing a good lab report. The takeaway from ISC lab, however, is enormous. Students are faced with the frustrations that inevitably come with any real research, and learn to analyze and present data at the level of actual scientific publications.

External Resources

Your fellow students are by far the most valuable resource in ISC. You will be working together with them on both problem sets and lab reports, and (perhaps one of the best aspects of the class) form a very close community.

As much as the professors pride ISC with being a revolutionary, nontraditional class, sometimes it is still helps to refer to a more “traditional” text that sets a better foundation of basic concepts. For example, many students used Dill’s Molecular Driving Forces as a reference for statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, and Griffiths’s Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (though be warned, one of the professors really does not like Griffiths). Because ISC covers so many topics it is better to either find online copies of alternate textbooks, or borrow them from Lewis Library.

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

ISC is a uniquely challenging course. Students who make it through gain an aptitude for quantitative reasoning, become familiar with the process of scientific research, and feel a sense a community and connection unparalleled by those brought about by any other class. That said, the class is very challenging, a huge time dedication, and will at times be incredibly frustrating. If you are quantitatively-inclined, passionate about science, or enjoy doing research, this class will be an invaluable experience.

The second semester of ISC makes use of vector calculus (for electricity and magnetism) and linear algebra (for quantum mechanics), so having knowledge on those subjects definitely helps. Many take some type of math concurrently (MAT 201/203 for vector calculus and MAT 202/204 for linear algebra), though keep in mind that MAT 203-204 sequence is another challenging, time-consuming class.

The full year ISC sequence gives equivalency credit for six classes: PHY 103/104, CHM 201/202, MOL 214, and COS 126. If you only take the first semester then you will only receive credit for PHY 103 and CHM 201. Note that these equivalency credits are not universally accepted—engineers may need to take additional classes to fulfill their requirements, depending on their specific concentration. Although ISC is a huge time commitment, students certainly find time to take other challenging courses and participate in extracurricular activities—orchestra, dance groups, acapella, theatre, varsity and club sports, or doing research in a lab. There is a limit, though, on how much one can do and maintain a healthy amount of sleep. Still, there is nothing stopping an ISC student from also living a full college life.

An Integrated, Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences I

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