Interdisciplinary study can be like buying the ingredients for a salad, laying them beside one another and eating each ingredient one at a time.
Interdisciplinarity is the salad itself, where each ingredient is still identifiable, but they complement one another and work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
However, student number caps on classes, timetabling clashes, and endless module prerequisites can hamper students’ ability to study across multiple disciplines. And the challenges of true interdisciplinarity can be even greater with complex rules around assessment, the awarding of credit, and staff being reluctant to move out of their disciplinary comfort zones.
On Tuesday, Geraint Thomas set out the principles of the new degree accreditation framework from the Society for Natural Sciences, which involve a commitment to embed interdisciplinarity across the various branches of natural science to make the whole discipline greater than the sum of its parts.
Communities and communication
Core to many accredited programmes are interdisciplinary skills modules that provide the dual opportunity for delivering core and bespoke skills and bringing together students from across different disciplinary areas. Many natural sciences programmes have multiple subject streams where students pick major and minor subject combinations. In the past, these students have had little to no opportunities to interact. Interdisciplinary skills modules allow students from diverse subject areas to come together over shared skills development and create a community of practice where their different disciplinary approaches and experiences can be shared.
A key aspect of successful interdisciplinary study is the development of communication skills. When working across disciplinary boundaries, it is necessary to speak the same language and not fall into disciplinary jargon or assumption. Communication skills are vital for any interdisciplinary programme or module.
Many institutions also take a wicked problems approach to embedding interdisciplinarity. Wicked problems are often defined as societal and cultural problems which are so complex as to be perceived as impossible to solve due to their interconnected nature, spanning many disciplinary areas – examples being climate change, sustainability and the obesity crisis. Almost by definition, these lend themselves to interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches.
If COVID has taught us anything, it is that we can tackle seemingly insurmountable problems quickly and effectively if we work together across disciplinary boundaries; respecting that expertise, knowledge, and contributions from other disciplines can fill gaps and bring useful new perspectives on a problem. In many institutions, this is often done through Grand Challenges initiatives, where multidisciplinary teams of students tackle a wicked problem.
This approach is mirrored in competitions such as iGEM and Bright SCIdeas. It is also possible to do so within assessed modules. With more institutions and programmes looking at authentic assessment approaches – i.e. assessment which allows students to demonstrate both deep understanding and higher order thinking and problem-solving skills in a real-world relevant way, rather than being assessed on the ability to produce ‘the right answer’, credit baring Grand Challenge-style teaching has become more viable.
Grand Challenge modules and assessment approaches are, by their very nature, focused on group work. But many institutions have now rolled out collaborative approaches to the more traditional individual capstone research project. Traditionally, final-year projects are run by single disciplines, and all students must pick from the same disciplinary projects. But by designing projects with interdisciplinary students in mind, such as requiring two supervisors from different departments, a wide variety of exciting and cutting-edge projects can enable students to effectively demonstrate that interdisciplinary mindset and skillset and often can uniquely tackle problems which other single-discipline students cannot.
One oft-cited impediment to interdisciplinary study is the requirement for pre-requisite knowledge before further study of a topic, whether in the form of A-level prerequisites for entry to a programme or module prerequisites built into programme structures. Institutions are beginning to negate this by offering a broad foundation across a number of subjects to facilitate in-depth study at later stages. These have successfully shown that the skills for study and a keenness to be pushed out of a disciplinary comfort zone can facilitate a much greater breadth of study than many current structures.
Many of the best interdisciplinary researchers are driven by the things they don’t understand but believe their experiences and perspectives could shed new light. We should offer our students the same opportunities rather than just let them drift through their disciplinary comfort zone.
Accreditation has a role to play in encouraging and facilitating better interdisciplinary education. By reducing the emphasis on how much ‘stuff’ you know and increasing the emphasis on the skills required for interdisciplinary study and the philosophical and ideological commitment to interdisciplinarity, great things can be achieved.
It is easy to lay your ingredients down side by side, but it takes a degree of commitment, skill, and access to the right tools to make a good salad. The product is worth the effort. It takes commitment, good assessment tools, and skilled pedagogy to create a product greater than the sum of its parts.