Penn Compact 2020/

Integrate Knowledge: Giving Scholars a Holistic View

PIK Professor Robert Ghrist speaking to prospective Class of 2014 students during Penn Previews.

PIK Professor Robert Ghrist speaking to prospective Class of 2014 students during Penn Previews.

When some students come to Penn, they’re seeking answers to life’s big questions around issues of justice, origins, love and identity. Starting in Fall 2011, 80 incoming College of Arts and Sciences students will be able to explore these big questions in a fully holistic, multidisciplinary way.

Designed for freshmen who have been accepted as Benjamin Franklin Scholars (BFS), the new Integrated Studies Program (ISP) provides these students a rich and multifaceted introduction to a liberal arts education. As part of the program, three professors from the College—one from humanities, one from social sciences and one from science—will teach a single course focusing on one of the big themes from different perspectives. For example, a physicist might teach about the shape of the universe, while an English professor lectures on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and the cosmos in that work, and a political scientist teaches about the importance of understanding the larger world when considering political events.

“It’s an invitation for faculty to think big,” says Peter Struck, the BFS faculty director and an associate professor of classical studies in the College. “It’s an invitation to the undergraduates to think big.”

The ISP takes the idea behind a “great books” course or core curriculum and expands it to include science and social science. In a liberal arts education, says Struck, students tap into many disciplines to “learn about the world and learn about what it means to be human.”

The goal is to develop students who are creative, have the courage of their convictions, a better sense of their own passions and are good at putting ideas to work in the world, Struck says. “I hope we have lots of kids from our group who go on to work for [non-governmental organizations], and go on to work for Wall Street,” he adds. “[This is a] purposeful period of exploration.”

In the ISP, students will spend Mondays through Wednesdays in lectures (one by the professor in each discipline). “Each discussion can follow its own logic,” says Struck, “and doesn’t have to compromise its integrity.”

On Thursdays, the first-years will gather together over a meal and have an opportunity to discuss that week’s theme in a more casual environment. The ISP also has a residential component—all 80 College scholars will live in Riepe College House in the Quad.

A significant change to the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program has been added this year: all single-degree College students will be invited to apply. In past years, administrators have tapped students for the program.

Other facets of BFS remain intact: Starting in their sophomore year, students will still be invited to take at least three seminars, small intense classes designed to encourage them to dive deeply into a subject or intellectual problem.

The BFS program also accepts 40 students from Wharton and five from the Schools of Nursing and Engineering and Applied Science. It is part of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, the central location on campus for students interested in competitive research grants, as well as scholarships to fund post-undergraduate study. The kinds of students who would want to apply for Marshall, Rhodes and other scholarship opportunities are likely those who would apply to the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program, Struck says.

“We’re looking for a certain kind of student who is looking for a certain kind of experience,” says Struck. “I’m convinced there is an interest out there in the freshman year.”

Originally published on Feb. 17, 2011
Story by Heather A. Davis
Photo by Scott H. Spitzer