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Government growth ambitions need interdisciplinary teaching

Geraint Thomas argues that universities must embrace interdisciplinary teaching to foster an effective innovation culture.
This article is more than 1 year old

Geraint Thomas is Professor of Biochemistry at UCL, Director UCL Natural Sciences Programme and a Founding Trustee of the Society for Natural Sciences.

Growth depends on innovation, and innovation needs educated, talented, organised, and appropriately resourced people.

But where is the talent coming for the UK government’s growth ambitions coming from? Especially in the STEM-driven tech sector. How do we get the right people in the right jobs for innovation?

In HE, we persist with old approaches to talent development. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, big problems won’t crack with the old approaches.

Various government strategies emphasise the high value of inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinarity, for research and innovation, but which university programmes address this need? How do we incorporate preparation for innovation into the HE machine and send it through our graduates to the economy?

In my opinion, the best set-up is the UK’s Modern Natural Sciences degrees. These programmes respond collectively through the newly constituted Society for Natural Sciences (SNS). Their efforts and know-how should serve as an example and a source of collaboration for the growth of interdisciplinarity.

Teaching quality

The first challenge is that interdisciplinarity is not encouraged by A-level or equivalent curricula, and we reward depth of focused learning with a handful of certificates. Perhaps understandably, the concern is that nurturing interdisciplinary acumen could reduce competitiveness for single discipline degree places.

So, how can universities recognise applicants with the capacity for interdisciplinary study? And following this, how can they grow these students into highly sought-after graduates? Part of the answer lies in both clearly describing what interdisciplinary programmes are about as well as de-risking the seemingly brave student choice to go interdisciplinary through quality assurance.

Teaching culture

The second challenge is internal and cultural. Interdisciplinary education is superficially attractive. It automatically evokes a vision of fertile environments cultivating intellectual breadth and the development of the academic agility and creativity needed to impact big problems.

Frustratingly, this perception is stifled by the traditional segregation of study into disciplines and associated departments and through education management systems such as timetabling. Scientific disciplines are also entrenched as research brands which couples hiring policy to research opportunities – despite the underpinning business cases relying on teaching income. A requirement to both teach and research encourages efficient teaching that minimises time away from the lab. It also ossifies attachments to our own intellectual comfort zones. Hence a department’s teaching activity usually reflects its research horsepower in a patchwork of teaching interests. Only teaching steered by curriculum oversight or external accreditation processes will promote connectivity.

So, we struggle to materialise the vitality of interdisciplinary education because we struggle to mobilise a teaching workforce of isolated specialists to occupy a wider discomfort zone where they are professionally competent but less expert. Yet we must demonstrate intellectual courage to students who can carry this spirit into their later lives.

Teaching collaboration

The answer from modern natural sciences is to use the needs of interdisciplinary students to catalyse mutual interest in different disciplines. They foster collaboration by “incubating” and launching modules across disciplines, departments or faculties and co-supervision across academic divides of interdisciplinary undergraduate research projects.

The quiet work of the Society for Natural Sciences – and its predecessor Network – over the last decade has orchestrated an alignment of educational ambitions for the development of scientists confident in crossing boundaries and set up to act as integrators, interlocutors or catalysts in a wide range of teams with diverse, interacting expertise.

Fifteen UK universities running explicitly interdisciplinary natural sciences programmes are now using the society to share their insights and methods for tackling these challenges – and several others.

Teaching codified

The accommodation of different approaches – with the maintenance of academic standards – preserves healthy competition between different programmes and an alignment of goals. To deliver the necessary recognition of excellence, the society’s accreditation hallmark has codified interdisciplinary academic standards and practices in its accreditation hallmark. Routes to professional indicators of esteem for interdisciplinary scientists are also being explored in collaboration with organisations like The Science Council, which has already facilitated interactions between SNS and discipline-focused societies – most notably in developing SNS’s accreditation systems.

These are exciting times for UK Natural Sciences programmes. The need for interdisciplinary scientists grows, but universities face internal frictions from cultures and histories that entrench scholarship inside departments. Still, progress is being made in meeting the wider needs of students and the UK economy.

And it is worth the trouble because it gives our graduates an advantage over their peers from narrower pathways. They recognise their intellectual stretch and self-reliance fostered by complex patterns of study and accommodating administrative structures.

This is the feedstock for an effective innovation culture.

One response to “Government growth ambitions need interdisciplinary teaching

  1. It’s an old argument I know, and was being expressed by HEAs Paul Ramsden in 2009. Overarching needs driven through enterprise and entrepreneurship (QAA definitions here) already offer insights, and increasingly sustainability too. These are dead in the water without innovative thinking.

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