Dartmouth cancels IMPS program
By Kristina Mendicino
Published on Friday, April 26, 2002
Dartmouth's Integrated Math and Physical Sciences program, initially envisioned by reviewers from the National Science Foundation as a potential paradigm for interdisciplinary studies throughout the nation, was not offered to this year's freshmen class and has now been officially discontinued.
Although professors and students alike praised the unique program -- which consisted of courses integrating freshman math and science team-taught by professors of several departments -- budgetary constraints forced the involved academic departments to cut back their commitment to the program.
Professors Mary Hudson and Miles Blencowe from the physics department explained that limited resources motivated the department's decision to no longer offer the physics component of IMPS.
Because the physics department offered four introductory sequences of physics, including IMPS, it was difficult to maintain the program with only 16 faculty members, explained Blencowe.
Also, the balance between students beginning the IMPS sequence in the fall and those beginning the Physics 13/14 sequence in the winter was highly uneven, Hudson said. By now offering two sequences of Physics 13/14 the disparity has diminished, "to the service of physics students."
Dean of the Thayer School of Engineering Lewis Duncan, however, said that the integrated approach to science and math offered through the IMPS program helped reinforce Dartmouth's philosophy of interdisciplinary education.
"We talk about your education being a whole, and then we teach it in a mosaic of individual classes. IMPS was an attempt to teach math across the science curriculum, creating an interdisciplinary experience," Duncan said.
Former IMPS students similarly said that the program offered unique benefits superior to the traditional, separated math and physics sequences.
Engineering major Adam Villa '01 -- who took IMPS when it initially included not only math and physics components, but also a chemistry component -- found that it was "extremely worthwhile," explaining that "you can't split up the subjects ... there is no pure science, and there is no pure math."
Engineering professors Harold Frost and Eric Hansen concurred, describing an integrated approach as the best answer to instruction in the sciences, especially for aspiring engineers.
"I think it was a great idea, and if the program were to continue over the course of, say, 10 years, it would stand out as a major feature of the Dartmouth program," said Frost.
Those who had served on the committee scrutinizing the program's success had cited it as a prototype for other sorts of integrated courses, according to mathematics professor Dorothy Wallace, who helped craft the original program and served as one of its initial teachers.
Opportunities such as a lab module at the Thayer School of Engineering also rendered the IMPS program particularly appealing to students interested in engineering, according to Hansen.
Although the classroom performance of engineering students who had taken IMPS did not differ significantly from those who had pursued the traditional physics and math sequence, retention rate within the engineering major was greater for IMPS students. One of the program's goals was to retain engineering students, according to Wallace.
Since its inception, however, the IMPS program has been shrinking. At the start of the program, four departments -- the physics, math, chemistry, and engineering -- worked to design the class. The chemistry department, also citing insufficient resources as its motive, withdrew two years later, according to chemistry Professor John Winn.
The reduction of the program was something that Winn considered inevitable, since it initially required first-year students to commit six out of their first nine classes to IMPS.
"But those who stuck with the program had a unique experience seeing that the whole was truly greater than the sum of the parts," he added.
Continuity during her first year was one of the attractive aspects of IMPS, Kellie Stokes '04 said.
"Learning how to work well with the same students over the course of more than one term created a great bonding experience," former IMPS student Benjamin Frischhertz '02 said.
The math department continues to offer a single course supplemented with applications to physics as an alternative to the former version of the IMPS program.
"Who knows what may happen in the long term," though, mathematics professor David Webb commented. "Our department is really feeling the pinch of insufficient resources as well."
Since the present course lacks the team-teaching and faculty interaction component that the IMPS program had had, "the option is 'comparable' only in a limited sense," said mathematics professor Marcia Groszek, who had been active in designing the IMPS program.
Allocation of funds for specific courses or, in the case of IMPS, programs is determined within each academic department, according to Director of Budget and Fiscal Affairs Katherine Soule.
Each department's budget is based upon what is called "full-time equivalent" credit, which was established for each department some time ago based on such factors as enrollment, number of majors and curriculum, Soule said.
The teaching components of integrated course sequences such as IMPS places a greater financial strain on departments, since professors receive only one FTE credit for teaching an integrated course, yet must attend courses taught by other professors in the program.
Furthermore, seeking extra support for the respective departments is not necessarily a viable solution, according to Winn.
"Even with additional funding to expand the chemistry faculty for a program like IMPS, we don't have the research space to add more faculty members," Winn said.
The funding from the MATC initiative, however, was not a primary source of teaching funds, according to Wallace. The money was invested in the planning of the program, the provision of graduate student tutors, and the designing of the textbook. The cost of teaching the program "was all done by economizing," she said.