Feature Stories

iCons at Work

UMass Amherst program is a world leader in science education
  • UMass Amherst iCons students smiling standing in front of their poster.

“These aren’t back-of-the-book problems that have already been solved.”

-Justin Fermann

From oceanic plastic gyres to the Zika virus, “Every great problem is an educational opportunity,” says Professor of Chemistry Scott Auerbach, founding director of the Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This one-of-a-kind program, launched in 2010, teaches undergraduate researchers a signature methodology of performing science and how to apply it to solve societal challenges.

But how do you narrow a global problem into one that is scientifically “doable”?

“These aren’t back-of-the-book problems that have already been solved,” says iCons program director Justin Fermann. Confounding problems such as fracking pollution and bee colony collapse disorder present opportunities for these up-and-coming researchers, 60 in each incoming cohort, from a range of disciplines—physical sciences to engineering to social sciences—to stretch their imaginations and their skills.

High-stakes problems demand relentless practice, so iCons training begins afresh, resetting science to its first principles: What do you know? What don’t you know? And what is possible to know through science? From that inception point ensues a series of stages: engagement (students question what can be done about a problem), research, designing a solution, and reflection—which includes asking what factors contributed toward or against success, critiquing of their presentation by their peers, and finding potential sources of their own errors.

Students spend four years practicing within this structure. To attend the iCons Senior Research Expo is to witness this unique methodology in its full maturity—for instance, the dazzlingly relevant project of Meghan Bernier ’16 to measure the chemical BPA, a known endocrine disruptor, on the thermal paper of your receipts. (The takeaway: go paperless whenever possible.)

This methodology also gives rising scientists an entry point through which they can effectively solve problems about which they care deeply. Reflecting after their case study on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the iCons class clamored: We want to make a contribution! So for their next case study on Zika, they consolidated their planning models, vetted them rigorously, and sent them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

iCons student Anthonia Okafor ’19 is excited for how the program is preparing her to collaborate with other researchers—in her case, in the field of public health. “I get to work on common ground with students in other disciplines,” she says, “people my own age. Together, we are getting to work on real-world problems. It’s scientific method, but also involves people and the environment.”

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