To deal with cross-disciplinary, systemic problems, we must help students develop cross-disciplinary skills, especially the ability to communicate with many different disciplinary experts, synthesize knowledge and create new concepts and theories. Given the challenges facing humanity today, both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to scientific education are necessary. Interdisciplinarity offers new insights to existing problems, and points out new approaches obstructed by our traditional disciplinary structure. However, implementing a truly interdisciplinary approach requires restructuring disciplinary boundaries and can thus elicit significant opposition from faculty and administrators comfortable with the status quo. In addition, it requires serious financial and administrative support. Multidisciplinary approaches, on the other hand, can work within existing disciplinary and administrative structures. Moreover, multidisciplinary approaches to science education provide students with a foundation in a specific discipline as they develop broader interdisciplinary skills.
We are creating a new educational model that integrates science and math education by linking existing courses from many different departments using sustainability as an organizing principle. Sustainability is short for “sustainable development,” carrying the implication of continuing improvement in the living conditions of all people while treating economic issues, environmental issues, and matters of social equity and justice all on an equal footing (World Commission on Economic Development). Developing an integrated and place-based understanding of the threats facing humanity and the options for dealing with them is a central challenge for promoting a transition toward sustainability (National Research Council 10). Our goal is not simply to add new content to already existing courses but rather to transform how existing material is taught, to link content that students often see as unconnected, and to developed students’ critical thinking and synthesizing skills.