Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study

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Second, when they major and possibly minor , students learn to think more deeply in one or perhaps, in the case of double majors, two of these silos, still without learning what is most important: how to integrate the knowledge across silos. A problem-based approach teaches such integration of knowledge. Third, students may not realize how limited their thinking is. Like the carpenter desperately looking for some task in which to use a hammer, the student may come to believe that his or her field provides the answers, and that practitioners in other fields have less to offer in the solution of complex problems.

A problem-based approach puts the problems before the tools. As an example, an economist may come to view the world in terms of idealized economic models, paying too little attention to the psychological factors that may contribute to the solution of complex problems; conversely, a psychologist may not fully appreciate the economic problems inhering, say, in the management of mental health care.

But more often than not, problem-based learning is employed within the silo of a single discipline, rather than across multiple disciplines. The result may be a false sense of security in approaching problems from a uni-disciplinary perspective. Many colleges and universities have started at least some interdisciplinary majors and minors. For example, at Tufts University, we have majors such as community health, peace and justice studies, and international relations, and we are starting a minor in leadership.

Such interdisciplinary majors are often popular, but may also be viewed by faculty with some suspicion because they are not conducted under the auspices of any one department. Moreover, even they may consist of sequences of isolated courses, where it is left to the student to draw the connections among the various disciplines and how they approach problems.

This is asking a lot of students, as drawing such connections challenges even the faculty who teach the students.

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Perhaps it is time to think not only about problem-based learning within disciplines, but also about problem-based major and minor subjects. Clearly, the problem a student might study in such a major or minor—for example, one of the four major problems identified above—is not the only problem a student will ever confront. But what a problem-based major or minor can do is teach students the knowledge and skills needed to think in an interdisciplinary way, so that such thinking is seen as a model for the kind of thinking needed to solve any serious problem.

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Such majors and minors need not replace traditional ones, but might supplement them as a viable option for many students. An assumption of the kind of program I sketch is that learning approaches to the acquisition and utilization of knowledge are, in the long run, more important, at least to most people, than is the particular subject matter at a fixed point in time of any one discipline. For example, it is more important to acquire the perspectives of psychologists, economists, historians, chemists, musicians, or philosophers than it is to learn all of the knowledge that currently is taught within the context of a single-disciplinary undergraduate major.

There are three reasons why approaches and modes of thinking are of primary importance in undergraduate education. First, for those who truly want to specialize in great depth, they have the option of going to graduate or professional school and becoming deeply steeped in a discipline. Often, however, students specialize by virtue of the jobs they hold, not necessarily only by virtue of the formal education they receive. Second, no matter how much material one puts in a single silo, the absence of a connection to other silos is what will prevent the problem-solver from being able fully to grasp the essence of a problem and how to solve it in a multidisciplinary way.

Third, knowledge becomes outdated very quickly today, or it is limited in terms of its applicability to real-world problems. For example, in my own field of psychology, there is precious little overlap between the content being taught in introductory courses today and the content taught in , when I studied introductory psychology. How might one go about forming a problem-based major or minor? I suggest six principles for the construction of such courses of study. First, the problems constituting the majors or minors must be truly complex, engaging, and relevant to the concerns facing the world—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Students will learn best if they are facing large, real problems in their full contexts, rather than small, artificial, or context-limited problems. The problems can be expected to differ across time and space. Second, the course of study must be truly interdisciplinary. It needs to recognize that complex problems are not solved in a unidisciplinary or even dual-disciplinary way.

The program must include instruction that crosses a variety of disciplines, likely bridging aspects of the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. Third, the instruction must be truly t ransdisciplinary, bridging silos rather than merely teaching an amalgam of courses across different disciplines. In all likelihood, such instruction would involve instructors working together across disciplinary boundaries to teach students to think across disciplines in solving problems.


An advantage of this kind of teaching is that the instructors may learn just as much as, or more than, their students. Fourth, assessment of performance must go beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries, involving projects and other forms of performance that encourage students to apply the full range of what they have learned to the solution of problems.

Assessment of progress is likely to involve the efforts of faculty across and not just within disciplines.

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Fifth, students must be shown the benefits of the new approach. Students and their parents are often among the more conservative elements in a college or university environment. They often want the traditional rewards of a college education, such as a better job or better admission prospects for the future. Changes in curriculum need to be linked, for them, to enhanced future outcomes. At the same time, employers and graduate and professional schools need to be sold on the idea that the problem-solving skills and attitudes acquired in a problem-based major or minor will be highly useful in the world.

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  8. The students learn better tools for thinking, and to useful ends. Sixth, faculty need to be rewarded for participating in such problem-based ventures. The form of reward will depend on the particular situation of the college or university. But if they are expected to take on more than they have done in the past, there needs to be, at the very least, recognition of service, and in all likelihood, a temporary reduction of other responsibilities as they construct new courses based on interdisciplinary, problem-based learning.

    An example of the kind of program I am describing here is a program based on the problem of how one can create positive, effective, ethical leaders for the world of the future the last of the four major problems identified at the beginning of this article. At Tufts, we are creating an interdisciplinary, problem-based leadership minor to enable all interested students to learn the skills and attitudes that are essential to positive, effective, ethical leadership. The minor consists of three tiers. The first tier involves courses across the disciplines that directly teach about leadership—theories of leadership, research on leadership, cases studies of leadership, ethics, and so forth.

    The second tier involves courses in the entire range of the liberal arts that pertain to leadership, but do not directly teach it. The third tier involves a substantial leadership experience and a reflective paper written about it that shows how what one learned in the first two more academic tiers can be applied in the third, more practical tier. The paper should be interdisciplinary, cutting across the various disciplines that contribute to a comprehensive understanding of what constitutes good and effective leadership, from local to global levels.

    It provides a chance to put together all one has learned in the various courses one has taken. Some might argue that what constitutes good leadership—or addressing problems of epidemics or global warming—cannot be directly taught, as no one is sure of the answers. This is probably true. But it is the nature of real-world problems that they are ill-defined and ill-structured, and the sooner students learn to deal with such problems, the better. What one can do is to create the kinds of experiences that enable students to learn about leadership, global warming, or anything else.

    In my own undergraduate course on the nature of leadership, I design a series of experiences that enable students to learn what it means to be a leader. As in most other courses, I use books, articles, and some lectures. But the course also contains more distinctive features. In this way, students learn from diverse leaders in the everyday world how principles can be transformed into practices. This is the most popular part of the course, as it exposes students to the thoughts and actions of people confronting real problems in real jobs.

    Almost all of the classes also include active learning about leadership. For example, in the first class of the semester, after I reviewed the syllabus, an individual in the class spoke up, loudly and obnoxiously complaining about the syllabus and how unreasonable it was. Other students were flabbergasted until I thanked and dismissed the individual, who was a shill I had planted in the classroom. I then pointed out to the students that in leadership roles, the question is not whether someone will publicly challenge your authority, but rather, how you, as a leader, deal with such challenges to your authority.

    I then divided the class into three groups, and had each group simulate how it would handle public challenges of this kind. In another exercise, I taught in a blatantly incompetent way for five minutes. I then pointed out that leaders always encounter, sooner or later, incompetent team members who drag down their team but who the leader is unable, for one reason or another, to remove from the team.

    Three teams then had to simulate how they would handle an incompetent superior, coordinate, or subordinate member of their work team. In yet another class, students had to hire a team member a dean , going through the steps of choosing the team member—from vision statement to job interview to the interview in which the team attempts to persuade the selected candidate to take the position. Students also were actively involved in interviewing a leader, analyzing his or her leadership, and evaluating their own leadership.

    They further analyzed, as a team, the leadership of a well-known leader. The goal of a leadership minor, then, is to prepare students to be in the vanguard of new leaders for a changing world. Rather than hope students will inadvertently pick up the skills of good and effective leadership, the minor helps ensure, to the extent possible, that they do.

    Most gratifying to me was when a student from the class came to my office this spring and said that he and other students had been observing that the course differed from many others in that the students could use what they had learned in the course almost every day of their lives. How to create positive leaders is only one example of the kinds of problems students might confront in a problem-based major or minor.

    Other topics, such as how to deal with epidemics or other catastrophes, how to deal with global warming, or how to deal with human conflicts, also form bases for such academic programs. In the end, problems are interrelated. For example, there are many elements of crises that are the same, regardless of their particular content—whether it is war against an epidemic, global warming, terrorism, or corruption in leadership. Problem-based major and minor subjects will enable students to learn the wide variety of knowledge, skills, perspectives, and attitudes that will enable them to solve the wide variety of problems they will face in their lives.

    Most importantly, students will learn to think across rather than merely within silos—to see problems in their full complexity rather than in the limited ways any single discipline can bring to bear. The proposal in this article is not without challenges. Colleges and universities, and the stakeholders within them, are used to traditional majors and minors, and have based their instruction for many years on this traditional system.

    Problem-based study would cause some dislocation for those used to the traditional system. But I view problem-based majors and minors as a supplement to traditional offerings, rather than a replacement. Undoubtedly, most students would continue to major in traditional fields of study, which have served as useful bases for undergraduate education in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

    Students should have the option of choosing what they want to learn, and teachers the option of choosing what they want to teach. The kind of system proposed here is not altogether new. Many colleges already have problem-based offerings. Tufts University is one.

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    Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, is another. At Wheaton, there is a program that enables students to explore different areas of knowledge and different approaches to problems in an integrated way. At Hollins University, students can study a concept such as human freedom from multidisciplinary standpoints, such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and political science.

    At the University of Virginia, there are multidisciplinary majors such as medical ethics. So the seeds of the kind of system described in this article already exist. Such a system would probably have to be phased in over a period of years, but it would not replace more traditional offerings.

    Phasing it in would have one great advantage: it would prepare students to think in an interdisciplinary way so that, when they are confronted with the problems of tomorrow, they start with the problem rather than with their toolbox, and then work with others to choose the set of toolboxes that will best address the problem at hand. Robert J. To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled aacu.

    Join our email list. Search form Search. Buy Print Copies. Current Issue. Search Articles by Title. Table of Contents Overview. A Different Take on Excellence. From the Editor. Interdisciplinary Studies at a Crossroads. The Transformative Power of Art. A Liberal Education Scorecard. Inside-Out Leadership. Heating Up Liberal Education. Liberal Education.

    Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study
    Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study
    Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study
    Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study
    Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study Interdisciplinary Pedagogy for STEM: A Collaborative Case Study

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