UMass Amherst iCons Program Poised to Transform STEM Education

A $1.25 Million Gift from Mahoney Family Expands Pioneering, Interdisciplinary Program
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AMHERST, Mass. – A gift of $1.25 million over five years to the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst will significantly expand the reach of the Integrated Concentration in Science program (iCons) by recruiting more faculty, providing more mentors for STEM students and funding the spread of the pioneering iCons program to other higher education institutions.

“Interdisciplinary solutions have always been the key to solving the tough problems,” says Richard J. Mahoney, a longtime UMass supporter whose family is providing the increased funding for iCons. “Although academic institutions are often stuck in their silos in the way they teach and operate, I’m happy to see that UMass Amherst is pioneering a more integrated real-world education for its students. I was present at the creation of iCons, and having watched the program grow, I've seen first-hand its impact on students and their future in science.

Mahoney’s family, including Barbara M. Mahoney ’55, William E. Mahoney ’55, and Robert M. Mahoney ’70 and Kathleen S. Mahoney ’70 are longtime supporters of the sciences at UMass Amherst.

The gift will be officially announced on Wednesday, Nov. 6, starting at 6 p.m. at the UMass Integrative Learning Center, Room S131, 650 North Pleasant Street, Amherst. Program leaders and current iCons students will be in attendance and available for interviews.

The iCons program was created to educate the next generation of leaders in science and technology and arm them with the attitudes, knowledge and skills necessary to solve the inherently multi-faceted problems facing the world. Launched in 2010, the iCons program has produced six cohorts of graduates who are already transforming their fields, communities and the culture of scientific exploration. The program encourages and teaches undergraduate STEM researchers to collaborate across disciplines and exert leadership in tackling global problems, with an emphasis on communicating science to a wider audience.

“The iCons program has invented a revolutionary approach for teaching that fosters innovation, integration and impact,” said UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. “This generous gift from the Mahoney family enables UMass to provide national leadership in this 21st century way of learning.”

Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the UMass iCons Advisory Board, observed, “The UMass iCons program is unique across the USA. From my experience, iCons students have the leadership skills to ask the right questions, and the technical skills to find the right answers.”

Mahoney’s gift supports three separate funds that will dramatically broaden the impact of the UMass iCons program: the Directorship Fund, the Instructional Fund and the Evolution Fund. The Directorship Fund allows UMass Amherst to attract a world-class educator and researcher in STEM to direct the UMass iCons program. The director will be responsible for recruiting top-notch iCons faculty and partnering with companies and other universities to spread the program’s impact. Scott Auerbach, professor of chemistry at UMass Amherst and the iCons program’s founding director, is the first person to occupy this position as the newly appointed Mahoney Family Sponsored Executive Director. Auerbach has published two books and over a hundred articles on nanotechnology and clean energy, and has been at the forefront of educational innovation in STEM.

“Scott Auerbach is a gifted chemistry researcher, who has a long history of bringing innovation into the classroom—we’re delighted to have him at the helm of iCons, one of our signature education programs in the College of Natural Sciences,” said Tricia Serio, dean of CNS.

The Instructional Fund increases support for faculty who teach and mentor students in the iCons program, and provides faculty with a pathway to teach in iCons while maintaining the educational excellence of STEM disciplinary education at UMass Amherst. The Evolution Fund supports activities to keep UMass iCons at the vanguard of educational excellence and to broaden its impact. These activities include on-campus workshops to increase the use of best-practices at UMass, off-campus workshops to help the iCons program share its teaching approach with other institutions, and research on the effectiveness of the iCons way of learning.

Rather than replacing a student’s major, the program enhances it. An interdisciplinary team of professors and experts in their fields teaches a 20-credit curriculum, and as seniors, students undertake yearlong research-based projects. Their recent work has addressed such topics as cholera screening and prevention methods, diabetes risk factors and physical activity in African American girls, methods to provide highly accessible water monitoring, and possibilities for turning grass into usable biofuels.

The iCons program positions students for considerable achievement in graduate school and in their careers. They graduate with a level of expertise unusual for students with bachelor degrees: superior communication, leadership, and teamwork skills; a focused knowledge of real-world problems; interdisciplinary research skills; and the ability to network in order to attend top-notch graduate schools and land successful careers. Roughly 50 percent of graduates have gone directly into careers in research and industry, 30 percent have entered graduate school directly (Ph.D., M.A., M.S., and J.D. programs), and 20 percent are in medical school.

One of the donors — Richard J. Mahoney ’55 — is a Distinguished Executive in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis and retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Monsanto Company. He and his brothers, Robert and William, all received their degrees in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They went on to become leaders in their own industries and have served as high-level alumni advisers to the campus. Richard and his wife Barbara, also a UMass graduate, have supported the iCons program since their founding gift in 2008. In addition, the family’s generosity includes faculty support for grant writing and presentation, the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize and a lead gift for the construction of the Integrated Sciences Building.