How to lay the groundwork for interdisciplinarity in students

Recent events have shown the necessity of working together, and it’s never too early for universities, faculty and students to begin thinking about this, says Georgina Harris

Georgina Harris's avatar
26 Jan 2022
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Fostering interdisciplinary thinking in students is a great idea for universities

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Arden University

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Saving the world is no easy task. But it’s one that academics all over the world have found themselves tasked with on multiple occasions over the past two years.

No single traditional “discipline” would ever have been capable of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic in the way we have: identifying the virus; creating tests that can identify those who are infected; developing and distributing multiple vaccines worldwide; and developing new technologies that allow us to return to something approaching “normal” life again.

For those who missed it, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures introduced by Jonathan Van-Tam illustrated this beautifully. Mankind has historically made the greatest technological breakthroughs when facing a common enemy. Traditional academic boundaries are forgiven, and we are driven to do our best work by learning from our colleagues in other disciplines – but isn’t this exactly what the best industrial companies already do?

True interdisciplinarity is messy, disruptive and difficult to manage, but it is also where the best revolutionary ideas come from. Separate disciplines are there to help create and develop communities of practice: groups of experts with the same expertise who can support one another, progress their own discipline and teach the next generation. However, these discipline-specific groups will struggle to solve more complex, real-world challenges, and it’s never too early for universities, faculty and students to begin thinking about this.

If society is to succeed in meeting, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals, academic teams working across discipline boundaries will be needed. Here are some key things to consider when preparing staff and students to work and teach across disciplines:

Build an inclusive culture

The most important element of creating and sustaining multidisciplinary teams is building an inclusive culture. Students and/or staff who are thinking about such challenges must start by acknowledging that no one member of the team would be capable of solving this problem alone and agreeing that credit and funding for the work should be shared. Without clear agreement from the outset, such projects are doomed to fail from death by a thousand cuts.

In the UK, research funding calls often include the words “collaboration” or “interdisciplinary” in their title to reflect the funders’ expectation that more than one discipline will be needed to meet the challenge or build the required industrial capability.

Adopt the right approach

Of course, working in interdisciplinary teams is essential in the modern work environment. Encouraging students to engage with live projects (created using real business needs and curated by academics to ensure that students can demonstrate the required learning) is vital in providing them with teamworking skills and an understanding of how to work across academic boundaries.

The real world of work is never “fair” and seldom easy, so it’s important that students gain a taste of what is to come once they join their chosen profession. A “can do” approach to these projects and a willingness to learn new things is highly prized by industry and will provide graduates with skills that can be learned only by experience rather than by explanation.

Build appropriate teaching teams

Creating interdisciplinary teaching and learning teams can pose a particularly tricky challenge. Pedagogies that suit one discipline may not be the most appropriate for another. Learners are attracted to their chosen discipline not only on the basis of the material content of their course but also a shared identity with the culture and practices of certain associated careers.

Academics, meanwhile, are traditionally promoted as a result of their specialist expertise and (in the very best teaching universities) teaching excellence in their field. However, there are also many examples of academics in senior positions imposing what they believe “works” across multiple disciplines, resulting in poor progression and unhappy students for whom this pedagogical model is not a good fit.

Developing a multidisciplinary teaching and learning programme requires academics who are confident enough to acknowledge that they do not know everything. They also need to have the ability to work with colleagues and share their experiences of their students and their teaching. This is not a comfortable position in which to put oneself, particularly for more senior academics who want to preserve their status with colleagues. However, for those willing to step out of their comfort zone, the benefits are there to be had.

Acknowledging that there are very few instances where a direct transplant of teaching and learning methodologies is feasible between disciplines, working with colleagues with different students, who approach challenges differently and whose assessment strategy may differ wildly from your own, means there’s a smorgasbord of new tools and techniques to try. Collaboration between the disciplines to create a truly interdisciplinary programme will yield benefits for all involved.

With unprecedented evidence of the value of interdisciplinarity across academia, it’s time for all of us to seize the opportunity to develop new courses, extend our knowledge and, potentially, play a part in the next big breakthrough.

Georgina Harris is dean of the Faculty of STEM at Arden University, UK.

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