The Integrated Studies program is teaching cognitive science, political theory and philosophy in combination this semester, and it’s proving problematic for some students.
The program, which focused on different academic fields last year, underwent changes in the syllabus, class structure and discussion format before school started in September.
Although the program is continuously changing and adapting to meet students’ and professors’ needs, some students feel the integrative part of the program is lacking.
“In the Thursday symposiums they make an attempt to integrate subjects but they do so in a way that has no practical applications,” College freshman Natalie Peelish said. “I know the instructors realize that and are working to make it more integrative.”
Director of BFS and classics professor Peter Struck explained that ISP aims to make small improvements gradually to “make it the most vibrant learning experience,” for students.
“We tweak and re-tweak our assignments, reading and meeting structure,” Struck said.
ISP is a residential program that falls under the umbrella of Benjamin Franklin Scholars at Penn, where students take 90-minute lecture classes, Monday through Wednesday, covering three different subjects and a fourth class on Thursdays which aims to integrate the three focus areas.
College freshman Audrey Harnagel agreed with Peelish that integrating the disciplines is difficult, but views this semester as better than the last.
“I think [integration] is the toughest part pedagogically,” Harnagel said. “So far this semester the disciplines are meshing better than they did last semester. I think there are merits to trying to integrate things that on a surface level don’t fit together … I would like to see the integrative component be a little more interactive.”
Struck described what the original goal of ISP was.
“It takes a piece of the general education requirement and has it taught by professors who coordinate their offerings around common themes,” he said. “[These] are introductions to disciplines around themes that have common elements from week to week.”
According to Struck, ISP is at the halfway mark of a three-year trial period for which it has been given funding to adapt as needed. At the end of this trial period there will be a review of the program to see whether or not the University should maintain it.
Struck described the program not only as interdisciplinary but “multi-disciplinary.”
“The disciplines are working in their own domains, so they are not watering down anything that they are presenting for other needs of the course,” Struck said. “But … they’re asked to have a moment to think about two other disciplines’ approach to the same questions.”
Outside of the lectures, students are looking for alternative ways to integrate their learning amongst themselves.
Peelish, along with College freshman Max McCarthy, are in charge of the ISP blog, originally intended to be a place for students’ work but now a forum for discussion.
“Everybody is interested in some part of the course material but it is so broad and there is so much to cover,” McCarthy said. “Cognitive science is a huge field intersecting with five other fields … everybody had tons of questions but the professor had to ignore them because they’re trying to condense an entire field into an introductory course.”
McCarthy and Peelish said that they hope the blog will lead to more interaction between students in the program.
“We want to have a space to keep discussion going and where students can post questions to the professors,” said McCarthy. “Ideally we want professors to read through comments and answers questions on their own.”
Former ISP students expressed similar concerns regarding the program. Primarily that the overlap between the three topics is not always clear and discussions ultimately become too broad or tangential.
“Sometimes it’s hard to integrate all the subjects,” College sophomore Becky Chalsen, who was in ISP last year, said. However, comparison is difficult this year because sophomores and the current freshman have completely different topics.
“But the incoming class will have the same topics and readings we did so we’ll see if big changes are made,” she added.
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