Addressing the Challenge

College education has always had the responsibility to produce individuals who are well on their way to become experts in their field of interest. However, as society faces ever more complex problems that require systems thinking, we also see the growing importance of producing professionals who have the skills to work with people from a diverse set of disciplines. In broad terms, this new educational challenge can be addressed in one of two ways: (1) through an interdisciplinary approach concepts from different disciplines can be integrated to generate new ways of thinking. Participants must become fluent in the participating disciplines to create new approaches, (2) through a multidisciplinary approach the distinct perspectives and concepts of each discipline can be used to tackle particular portions of a complex problem; fluency in all the participating disciplines, however, is no longer emphasized. The important thing is for each participant to understand the multi-faceted nature of the problem and to have the necessary skills to communicate with others to produce a collaborative solution through a common scientific perspective. Although numerous significant scientific challenges may require an interdisciplinary arrangement, we believe that a multidisciplinary approach to scientific education has tremendous value. First, a strictly interdisciplinary approach needs to restructure the boundaries between disciplines and can thus require serious financial and administrative support. A multidisciplinary approach, on the other hand, works well with the existing systems we see in today’s institutes of higher education. Second, we believe that a multidisciplinary emphasis is a prerequisite to producing individuals who may later become expert interdisciplinary problem solvers.

The faculty involved in this proposal, representing the disciplines of Biology, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Physics aim to create multidisciplinary educational modules to involve students in more complex problems and multidisciplinary communication. Each module will be designed so that a course from each of the four disciplines will be designated for the purpose of exchanging information with the other courses. For example, students in one course will work on modeling global temperature changes. Seeing these effects they will be led to ask questions about the causes and impact of the trends. These questions will be passed on to students in the other courses to study and report back. The goals of these modules are to increase student engagement and hence learning, increase students knowledge of sustainability issues, and to have students recognize the need for multidisciplinary collaboration. At the introductory level students can use simple models appropriate to their level of learning and coursework, whereas more sophisticated models and tools, such as the Educational Global Climate Model (EdGCM), can be used in upper level courses. BIO 2010 concludes that successful interdisciplinary teaching will require new materials and approaches, and educational modules are an effective way to encourage faculty to incorporate new topics into courses [NRC 2003] leading us to believe that educational modules will also be effective multidisciplinary teaching tools. We will develop a series of interconnected educational modules, appropriate training materials, and supplementary support materials for multidisciplinary teaching (see example on page 5). In addition, these modules will be linked through a wiki-based web interface that will allow for collaboration between groups of students working at different times and allows for our project to expand in the future to include courses at different institutions. A strength of our approach is that faculty from many disciplines will interact during module creation to enhance the interconnectedness of the modules. Each discipline portion of the module will have the following characteristics:

  • Will stand alone in a discipline and allow for collaboration among disciplines by providing strong discipline specific content.

  • Will add information to the web interface, use information from the web interface, or both.

  • Will instruct students on the characteristics of the new 21st century problems.