Interdisciplinary Teaching: Designing for Success

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at InTeGrate workshops.

Interdisciplinary teaching can prepare students to solve real-world, multi-faceted problems related to sustainability. It can come in a variety of different formats, from fully integrated courses to courses that are linked by themes. Common to all types of interdisciplinary teaching is the benefit students and faculty receive from learning about multiple perspectives, which has value for retention, student engagement, transfer, and spurs systems thinking and working as a team (Lattuca, et al., 2004).

There is a wide spectrum of approaches to interdisciplinary teaching and which one is most suitable may vary by institution, instructor, and topic. Below are some tips and examples to get you started.

The Importance of Working Across Disciplines

Exploring sustainability-related issues from a variety of disciplinary 'lenses' is a starting point for understanding the complexity of these topics and addressing the needs and concerns of the different stakeholders involved. Bridging disciplines requires recognizing the differences in disciplinary cultures and working with these differences to build a culture that values collaboration and is respectful of the spectrum of expertise and interests/values/approaches of other group. The intent is not to create a classroom of 'hybrid' or 'jack-of-all-trade' students, but rather, to demonstrate how different perspectives and strengths can be beneficial in solving real-world problems.

Incorporating interdisciplinary teaching into the classroom can be done small scale (e.g. inviting guest lecturers from other departments) or at a larger scale (e.g. team teaching a course). Regardless of scale, it is important for instructors to demonstrate the collaboration and respect for other disciplinary perspectives throughout the process. For instance, if one is team teaching a course, it would be important for the instructors to develop the course and materials together, with mutual respect and understanding of each others' work and perspectives. Following the mission of team teaching, instructors must work together and the course content must be integrated at the design stage in order to build a strong and cohesive base for teaching.

Activities with an Interdisciplinary Approach

Unit 6: Hydrologic Balance and Climate Change
Kirsten Menking, Vassar College

Unit 9: Carbon Cycle and Ocean Chemistry
David Bice, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Module 8: Pests and Integrated Pest Management
Heather Karsten, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Unit 3: Managing the Risks of Lead Exposure
Katrina Korfmacher (University of Rochester), Richard Gragg (Florida A&M), Martha Richmond (Suffolk University), and Caryl Waggett (Allegheny College)

5. Passive Designs
Randolph Chambers, College of William and Mary

6. Energy from and to the Earth
Randolph Chambers, College of William and Mary

Browse the complete set of Interdisciplinary activities »

Integration by Design

Points of Intersection

One key starting place for interdisciplinary teaching is identifying points of intersection for large, key concepts, like 'sustainability,' 'hazards,' or 'systems thinking' that have many facets. Making sure these different disciplinary topics and perspectives are a solid part of the course rather than a tangential 'extra' topic is important in structuring your course and strengthens the points of intersection on particular topics. When designing your course, it may be helpful to construct a Venn diagram for major course topics and identify areas of strong disciplinary overlap.

Capitalize on Strengths of Others
Another approach for bringing an interdisciplinary component into your course involves finding solutions to common barriers by utilizing strengths of other disciplinary 'cultures.' For instance, one can bridge two cultures together using quantitative skills and literacy.

A generalized example of this is that engineers may be more facile with numbers, but may not question their origin. Conversely, geoscience students may find working with numbers and equations challenging, but have a better grasp on the origin of the numbers and formulas. Working together can build an appreciation for collaborative problem solving and may provide peer-to-peer instruction that benefits both types of students.

Provide a Meaningful Context and Example for Students
Putting interdisciplinary work in a context that is meaningful to students and applicable to their lives is engaging and appeals to the affective domain. Undergraduate research or service learning projects provide a mechanism for encouraging interdisciplinary work in the classroom or community. These can be done at the smaller scale (a project within a course) or a course can be designed around the project itself.

These experiences provide an excellent example of how science can be applied in the 'real world' as well as illustrate how different groups collaborate in the real world to find solutions to real-world issues. Depending on the project, they may even involve talking or working with leaders and organizations in a community, which can tie together science, policy, and economics. Depending on the project design, students can build skills that will prepare them for the workforce, including: teamwork, writing, and public speaking.

Ready to Design?

Now that you have an idea of some of the important general considerations for designing an interdisciplinary course, you can learn about specific examples of interdisciplinary strategies. The Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching module from Pedagogy in Action also provides an in-depth look at the what/why/and how of interdisciplinary teaching as a pedagogy along with examples for using an interdisciplinary approach.