Course: ISC 231/232
Instructor: Thomas Gregor, Martin Wuhr, Joshua Shaevitz, Olga Troyanskaya, Joshua Akey, Eric Weischaus
F 2018-2019

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

The Integrated Science Curriculum provides fluency in all the core scientific disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, and computer science) such that students can enter into any higher-level sciences with foundational knowledge. Many of these sciences are taught with a quantitative or mathematical lens. The goal of the Integrated Science Curriculum is to train students to become scientific thinkers and researchers. A core skill taught throughout the course is forming connections and associations across traditional “discipline” boundaries. The course staff are primarily physicists and chemists by training, and their passions lie in applying physics and chemistry to quantitatively understand biological systems. The course begins with the study of mechanics and Newton's Laws as a frame for understanding biological phenomena. You will also learn how to create mathematical models using differential equations and physical laws to understand biological systems. The solutions to these equations provide an understanding of physical realities. You will learn how to simplify models into solvable pieces, test your model, and modify your model to match real world observations. Such models can then provide predictions for future system behavior, and also provide insight into how the system functions. Topics include oscillation, dynamics of the cell, probabilistic models and their applications in statistical mechanics and population genetics, and thermochemistry. The course changes from year to year, so the order of content varies.   Throughout the course, it is essential to always think back to all the other topics you have learned and try to make connections. This is the goal of the course. The laboratory component of the course trains students to think and communicate like researchers. Creating the next generation of multidisciplinary researchers is a key goal of the program.   The course covers a lot of material in a short amount of time. Tackling introductory (and advanced) chemistry, physics, biology, and computer science is a daunting task. As such, it was expected that we as students would teach ourselves a lot on our own. Precepts provided a great opportunity to ask questions and clarify concepts. Problem set questions and exams went beyond rote memorization, and often did not mirror problems we had explicitly reviewed in class or precept (although there were exceptions).  Rote memorization and simple recall are not tested on exams, nor problem sets. It is essential to synergize between topics, think conceptually, and form connections. What was most challenging about the course was the time commitment, and the complexity of the information presented in short bursts.   This is a first year only course, so the only prerequisite is BC Level Calculus. However, a handful of students did not take this level of calculus, and while they had some trouble, they were still successful in the end. However, having this mathematical background is helpful because many of the assignments and assessments involve calculus. AP Chemistry and AP Physics are not expected, but this background is especially helpful.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

The textbook was written by the course instructors specifically for the course, and they also serve as lecture notes. Lectures occur four times a week with various professors. Lectures supply a foundation in all the major sciences and provide a framework for all the other material in the class. All of the other components of the course are extensions or applications of what is taught in lecture. The lectures move quite quickly, because the goal is to cover a lot of ground. Thus, reading through the textbook ahead of lecture and noting any confusions or questions is important to follow along. Mathematical derivations were often performed during lecture. One of the goals of ISC is to prepare students to become well-rounded researchers and creative thinkers, and the laboratory component is a big part of this mission. The laboratory component is meant to complement the lectures by providing experience with multidisciplinary experimental methods based on lecture material. Labs are in-depth and utilize advanced research techniques. The beginning of lab modules includes pre-lab reading, pre-lab assignments and around 1-2 hours of discussion and lecture led by the lab instructors. The labs involve a lot of moving parts and students are often short on time. The instructors emphasized that we should read through the instructions and delegate tasks to teammates that can be performed simultaneously to ensure that all tasks are completed in time. Understanding and mastering techniques and tools you use is important for maintaining time and also learning valuable skills. Reading through the lab manual beforehand and asking questions ahead of time is the best way to ensure understanding during the actual lab. Nevertheless, the lab reports ensure that you understand the important concepts from lab. The lab reports involve in-depth quantitative data analysis and presentation. A goal in these reports is to teach students how to draw conclusion from collected data, even if (and especially if) the data goes against our expectation and hypothesis. The precepts serve dual purposes. One goal is to emphasize the material shown in lecture and display the material in exciting new contexts. Another goal is to answer questions and confusions from lecture.  Precepts are a great time to participate. Sometimes, precepts will serve as an extra lecture, where course material is taught in precept, especially mathematical derivations. Half the precept time in the first half of the semester are COS 126 precepts.

Learning For and From Assignments

Problem Sets The problem sets are the primary way that students learn in ISC.  The questions are specifically designed to challenge our thinking, while reducing busy work and rote calculations. Questions may involve mathematical calculations such as solving differential equations related to a biophysical system and they often include some MATLAB coding. Problems often begin with quantitative steps, then move on to conceptual questions about the mathematical results. The problem sets are intense and lengthy. However, struggling through this challenging material is the best way to learn and internalize the information on a conceptual level. Since the sets are time consuming and challenging, it’s important to start early to ensure that you have time to get help if needed. The problem sets are designed to be collaborative. The course has an incredibly helpful staff, including the professors, preceptors, TAs, and student tutors. Still, taking time to struggle through the problems alone is always the best way to start. Once given hints or tips, it is important to understand the conceptual steps in the problem so that the same methods can be applied to new problems, such as exam questions. The same steps and processes found on the problem sets usually will not be tested exactly, but rather the concepts and methods found in the problem sets.   Exams The course does not have quizzes or tests, only a midterm and a final. Questions rarely if ever involve straightforward recall or familiar problems. Exam questions frequently involve the application of concepts and problem-solving strategies to unfamiliar questions, as well as synthesis between ideas and topics. The exams have only a handful of questions, and each have multiple parts. It’s important to tackle the problems you know how to do first. Reviewing all course material including the textbook, precept material, problem sets, and your own notes is the best way to study for exams. Reviewing each problem set and understanding each question at a conceptual level is essential. Making sure that you understand every step from problem sets as you do them (rather than right before the exam) makes exam preparation easier. Ask lots of questions, especially questions beyond what is explicitly stated or asked in assignments or lecture.   Lab Reports The lab reports are a large part of the course. They teach students how to think like an experimentalist and present and communicate information. The lab reports involve using MATLAB to analyze and plot data. Students do not need to know MATLAB going into the course. You will learn how to present data effectively and intuitively and analyze results to reach conclusions. Towards the beginning of the course, you will answer conceptual questions based on the lab manual, consider future experiments, and potential drawbacks of the methods utilized. The lab reports slowly stop prompting questions, and instead become more open ended. By the end of the course, the lab reports are structured like actual research papers (Abstract, Introduction, Results, Discussion, Conclusion).  At the end of the course, students will design their own final lab project, create their own lab manual, execute the lab, and analyze their results. Together, these lab reports incrementally teach students how to structure a research paper appropriately. The lab reports, like the problem sets, can take a long time to complete, and so it is essential to start as soon as possible.  It is also important to manage time around problem set due dates and lab report due dates. The lab instructors are kind and open to inquiry, so always ask questions about content from lab. The lab material is not frequently tested on exams, but the material is still essential for learning.  

External Resources

Other than the course book, there is not a singular textbook that can replace all of the course material. However, textbooks and online material related to each subtopic is available. Further, previous ISC students are available for tutoring almost every day. They are happy to help and are very knowledgeable. Further, TAs are available once per week to review the problem set and ask clarifying questions. However, what is most important is the other students in the course. The problem sets are designed to be collaborative, and the professors encourage us to work through them in groups. The class is small, so everyone knows one another.  Most students are exceptionally strong in one or two areas (of physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and biology), but may have less experience in the other areas. Classmates complement one another, because each person’s knowledge gaps can be filled out by others. Therefore, studying with others is a great way to learn. Explaining and teaching concepts and ideas helps to internalize information and identify knowledge gaps. Going beyond answering problem set questions to explaining them is an amazing way to learn, and ISC is set up perfectly for this type of learning.

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

ISC provides a strong foundation in physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science. Most importantly, ISC teaches you how to problem solve, think about science creatively, and form connections between topics. Therefore, ISC is an amazing course to prepare you for any field you hope to pursue afterwards. This is highlighted in the very diverse set of concentrations of ISC alumni. Luckily, ISC covers almost all of the engineering and premed requirements, so a lot of doors are kept open. However, it is not a good idea to take the course if your only goal is to “get out of” these requirements. This is not an easy course. It will take up a lot of your time. If you are not passionate about the material, it will be a great challenge. ISC counts as two courses but has the workload of around three. The most successful students genuinely enjoy the material. The course is extremely challenging, but if you are passionate about science, research, and learning, then this is the right class for you. In the end, the program is extremely enriching and valuable. You will come out of the course with a tight-knit cohort, and access to some of the most brilliant laboratories and researchers on campus. Many ISC student go on to join the labs of an ISC professor. If you are interested in pursuing research, you will gain a toolkit for scientific thinking, and a large and welcoming community of high-class scientists (faculty and students alike). A very wide range of topics are covered, so you are bound to be introduced to various new topics and disciplines that you may pursue in your independent work, or even your career. You will learn tangible skills such as MATLAB, Java coding, microscopy, and image analysis. You will learn how to communicate about scientific ideas and present data in a meaningful and accurate way. The time demand of the course teaches you time-management at a very early stage in your Princeton career, which will serve you well far beyond the course. But overall, you have to enjoy the course material, and be prepared to spend a large sum of your time doing course work.
An Integrated, Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences

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