When the next Leonardo da Vinci enrolls at the University of Richmond, the School of Arts and Sciences will be ready for him or her. Richmond’s new approach to teaching science is well-suited to a Renaissance man or a Renaissance woman.

Richmond’s Integrated Quantitative (IQ) Science course provides a combined introduction to biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science. Offered to first-year students, the course represents a fundamental shift in the way science is taught by presenting material from five disciplines in the context of one integrated topic. This fall, students studied antibiotic resistance. In the spring, they will learn more about the five disciplines by studying intercellular communication and cell signaling.

“It makes much more sense to me to learn these things in an integrated method — as they all fit together anyway — to solve real-world problems,” says Rachael Gunn, ’13, from Rockville, Md., who plans to major in computer science. When she first heard about the new course, she thought, “What a great idea! It’s a liberal arts approach to science education.”

Students completing both semesters of IQ Science will have the equivalent experience of taking introductory courses in each of the five disciplines. They also will earn credit for two general education courses — one in symbolic reasoning and one in natural sciences.

Professors in Richmond’s math and science departments worked together to create the pioneering course, which is made possible by a $1.4 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The course teaches students to approach scientific inquiry from multiple perspectives and to develop the kinds of cross-disciplinary problem-solving skills that will lead to significant advances in human understanding.

“If you’re going to be the person who finds a cure for cancer, or who finds out why there’s a hole in the ozone layer, … you’re going to have to think from an integrated viewpoint,” explains Dr. Lisa Gentile, who chairs the chemistry department and leads the interdisciplinary group. “The person who does these things is not just going to be a biologist or a physicist, but a person who can work to solve these problems using tools from a variety of disciplines.”

IQ Science is designed for highly motivated first-year students who relish the challenges of solving tough problems. They must complete a calculus course in high school and demonstrate a strong, broad interest in scientific fields.

The course offers unique opportunities for faculty members as well as students. Each professor attends all the classes, exploring connections among disciplines side by side with the students. With five disciplines in the mix, the professors are leaning, too. Lawson, for example, has not taken biology since high school, or chemistry or physics since his undergraduate days.

“I’m learning a lot alongside these students,” he says. “We really want it to be a big, collaborative learning environment and not a model where you just have a faculty member disseminating information to the students.”

This article by Pamela Babcock originally appeared in the winter 2010 edition of the University of Richmond alumni magazine. Read the full article.