A course to take us into the future

September 28, 2007

The integrated sciences degree will stimulate students and meet employers' new interdisciplinary demands, says Jim Al-Khalili

When deliveries of the bread for our morning toast are co-ordinated via satellite, who could doubt that we're living in an astonishingly technological age? Or that technology will be our chief - perhaps only - way of dealing with global challenges such as climate change and energy demand?

It seems reasonable to suppose therefore that we will increasingly need a scientifically literate workforce with the ability to innovate and adapt in ways we can't predict today. Sadly, though, our present system is failing to produce the sort or quantity of graduates required.

But that may be about to change with the introduction of a new type of degree - one certain to raise a few eyebrows.

Backed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and overseen by the Institute of Physics, integrated sciences (or ISciences) is being piloted by four universities - Surrey, Leicester, East Anglia and London South Bank. They all bring different qualities but share one vision: to produce well-grounded, interdisciplinary young science talent.

There are already numerous excellent combined sciences degrees allowing a student to choose modules from different disciplines and earn the requisite credits. While such "pick-and-mix" degrees, in which independent and standalone modules can be chosen according to whim, are fun and fulfilling, their lack of structure means that they may not be so useful to potential employers.

ISciences is designed to be the opposite. We have considered what is needed for a solid grounding in science relevant to the 21st century and worked backwards to produce a rigorous and intellectually challenging course.

Uninformed sceptics will, no doubt, suspect ISciences to be some sort of politically correct, science-lite soft option. This is a bold idea, after all, and one that demands that we abandon well-established comfort zones.

A number of the biggest high-tech multinationals, such as ICI, Unilever and Centrica, whose businesses require them to look far ahead, are already on board and excited by ISciences. Others will need convincing. They may initially go for the safe option of a straight single-science graduate, even if the job requires crossing traditional science disciplines. Their worry will be that you cannot have both breadth and depth at the same time and that a broad degree cannot attract or produce the best scientists and is therefore a consolation prize for those not quite up to doing a "proper" science degree.

Being one of the architects of the course, I know this not to be the case. Furthermore, there are compelling reasons why the integrated approach is not only right but inevitable.

To start with, it's the way research already works, both in academe and industry. Universities create interdisciplinary centres that bring together a diverse array of physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers. And there is an increasing overlap in areas such as nanotechnology, environmental science and biophysics. If we are combining disciplines at the research level, why not at the teaching level, too? Surely it is important to produce scientists equally at home with a circuit diagram as with a test tube. While the ISciences degree is marketed as teaching modules from genetics to astrophysics, in between is everything from biochemistry and physiology to electromagnetism and computer programming - all taught to an exacting standard using a problem-based approach.

In addition, ISciences will help us catch future talent that is currently slipping through the net. There are plenty of students who enjoy science and will have taken more than one at A level but do not feel ready yet to specialise - they would rather postpone the decision until they have progressed further and can be more certain of their choice. ISciences will facilitate this because all the first-year material in a typical physics degree is covered in its first two years, thus allowing students to transfer on to the second year of a physics and possibly a chemistry course. The alternative can be wrong choices, disillusionment and, quite possibly, good candidates dropping out altogether.

The second type of potential applicant is the student who does not want to be pigeonholed into one discipline. Such students will recognise the benefits of a broader, interdisciplinary degree, perhaps because they want a career in some cutting-edge research field or because they have a passion to teach science at school.

Either way, the challenging, varied nature of the course will prepare them well for the realities of working life and long, varied careers.

For universities, these are exciting times. We accept that we're giving industry - and society - a product that, in some ways, it doesn't know it needs (yet). But that will soon change as the first few cohorts of graduates start work and prove their worth. Perhaps what is most important is the joined-up, long-range thinking behind the move. The pace of change and the scale of challenge facing us are awesome, but they will also prompt inspirational thinking. ISciences is proof of that.

Jim Al-Khalili is professor of physics and professor of public engagement in science at Surrey University.

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