iCons Program Launches Digital Showcase of Student Research

As the first students in the iCons Program prepare to graduate early next month, a new interactive gallery is highlighting the research they conducted under the auspices of the four-year integrated science program.

Launched in the 2010-11, iCons employs multi-disciplinary team-based learning on current societal problems. From their first day in the program, students begin developing skills in leadership, communication, interdisciplinary teamwork and scientific research – necessary training for addressing the multifaceted problems facing society.

According to iCons director Scott Auerbach, the Student Showcase is a vehicle for the public to explore the sophisticated work being undertaken by students in the program and also constitutes an archive of their accomplishments.

“The Student Showcase embodies two important philosophies of the iCons Program,” said Auerbach. “We train our students to become ambassadors of science, bringing science to the rest of the world, and we endeavor to push all iCons work outside of the classroom and lab, forcing students to improve in ways they did not think possible.”

During their final year in the program, iCons students conduct authentic scientific research working in faculty laboratories, resulting in a final thesis project. Each student’s thesis will be exhibited on an individual page within the Student Showcase. More than just a static portfolio, it is an outlet for the students to explain their work through their own voices.

Last fall, all students in iCons 4 produced a two-minute video pitch explaining the motivation, methodology and impacts of their research. The students wrote video scripts individually, and then worked within production teams to film and edit the videos using the resources available in the Digital Media Lab at the Du Bois Library.

For biology major Beruk Kiros, creating the video was both challenging and fun. While it was difficult to summarize the methods and results for his research on endocrine disruptors in no more than two minutes, he said it was a valuable experience. “In iCons, we learn to communicate our research by giving oral presentations, writing papers and making posters,” he said, “Creating an abstract video is definitely another opportunity to practice communicating my research to a general audience.”

The students premiered their videos during a cohort film festival last fall – importantly, at the beginning, not the end, of the research process. This timing was intentional. By taking a step back early in the process to reflect on their projects, and distill complex research for public consumption, the students internalized the importance of communicating the impact of their work.

Microbiology major Erin Amato explained that creating the video allowed her to visualize how her research on intestinal microbes contributed to the “bigger picture.”

“I kind of had an ‘a-ha’ moment when I was telling my story of how my research problem came to be, and it allowed me to have a greater appreciation for not only research but the integrated focus of iCons,” said Amato.  

The videos also communicate something about the students themselves. “I think that it was easy to see how passionate we are about the material we are investigating through the videos in a way that is not conveyed on paper,” said Amato.

The departure from the standard requirements for a research paper was also a perfect way to set the tone for the final year in the program. “It was a different twist,” she said, “which is very typical of iCons.”

The Showcase was made possible by funding from the College of Natural Sciences and from private and corporate gifts.

For more information, e-mail icons@cns.umass.edu or visit the iCons Program at www.cns.umass.edu/icons-program/