The Integrated Concentration in Science program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also known as UMass iCons, is revolutionizing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and will be expanding its reach thanks to a substantial gift that will foster more interdisciplinary research and expand the science learning model to other institutions.
Launched in 2010, the UMass 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.
Thanks to a gift of $1.25 million over five years from the Mahoney family—longtime UMass supporters including Richard J. Mahoney ’55 and Barbara M. Mahoney ’55, William E. Mahoney ’55, and Robert M. Mahoney ’70 and Kathleen S. Mahoney ’70—the College of Natural Sciences will significantly expand the reach of the UMass iCons program by educating more students, positively impacting the commonwealth, and spreading the program’s pioneering educational approaches to other institutions.
“Interdisciplinary solutions have always been the key to solving the tough problems,” says Richard J. Mahoney. “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."
“The UMass iCons program is unique across the USA,” says Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the UMass iCons Advisory Board. “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,” says Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst.
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.
“The UMass iCons program has invented a revolutionary approach for teaching that fosters innovation, integration, and impact,” says UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. “This generous gift from the Mahoney family enables UMass to exert national leadership in this 21st-century way of learning.”
The College of Natural Sciences created the UMass iCons program 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. The intention was to challenge students to break out of their scholarly silos and engage in interdisciplinary teamwork. UMass iCons students collaborate on complex global issues in biomedicine and renewable energy in diverse teams, pursuing creative solutions fueled by interdisciplinary perspectives.
“UMass iCons is a unique program that challenges students to solve problems that they care deeply about, like climate change, clean energy, and curing cancer,” says Scott Auerbach, the UMass iCons program’s inaugural Mahoney Family Sponsored Executive Director. “This way of learning is not only good for our students, it’s essential for our future.”
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 taught me that it requires an interdisciplinary approach to solve the most intractable problems of our time,” says 2014 graduate Kurt Schultz, who studied the relationship between sleep, emotion, and aging. Now a medical student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Schultz asserts, “iCons will always be a way of life for me.” Pratiksha Yalakkishettar ’14, who focused on the transmission of honey bee viruses through pollen, says of her experience, “iCons is everything I love to do. We see how everything is connected, and then we apply what we’ve learned. It’s so easy to get stuck in the ‘this is my major and this is what I’ll learn’ mentality. In iCons, we talk and produce.”
The UMass 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 (PhD, MA, MS, and JD programs), and 20 percent are in medical school.
The scope and impact of the UMass iCons program is reflected in the career pursuits of its graduates.
LeeAnn Monteverde graduated in 2015 with a dual degree in psychological and brain sciences on the neuroscience track, and in intellectual property law. After earning an MS in biomedicine and molecular science as well as her law degree, LeeAnn is currently a law associate at Fay Kaplun & Marcin, LLP.
Lily Fitzgerald ’14, who majored in environmental science and minored in biochemistry and molecular biology, earned an MS from MIT’s Technology and Policy Program, and is now working for Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc., in their government affairs office.
After graduating from UMass, public health sciences major Ryan Burke ’13 entered the Peace Corps to teach nutritional and sexual health in the Dominican Republic. Ryan then earned his master’s in public health at Emory University, and is now a surveillance epidemiologist at Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
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. Their family legacy of giving and involvement is seen far and wide throughout the campus, but especially in the natural sciences. 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.