Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

A 1996 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) supported a faculty workshop on modeling, which ultimately led to the creation of two new interdisciplinary tenure-track positions in computational science, both in the department of biology. These are currently held by a computational ecologist and an evolutionary genomicist, who have both developed computationally intensive biology courses and research opportunities for undergraduates. The resulting increase in scientific computing subsequently highlighted the need to strengthen our computer science program, leading the college to create two tenure-track positions in the department of computer science and promote computer science from a program to a formal department. In collaboration with these biology appointments, computer science has since spearheaded efforts to increase emphasis on computational and quantitative approaches throughout our STEM curricula by working with other science departments to develop an interdisciplinary minor in Computational Methods. In support of the new minor, HHMI funding supported the creation of six new interdisciplinary courses that emphasize computational and quantitative applications in the sciences, the modification of three biology courses to include greater emphasis on these techniques, and the incorporation of a modeling component into a math course on differential equations.

HHMI funding has also led directly to the creation of the minor in neuroscience. The minors in both neuroscience and computational methods have, in turn, spurred the development of additional interdisciplinary major, minor and concentration programs in biochemistry and molecular biology, environmental studies, and geochemistry.

The 1996 HHMI grant also allowed Bryn Mawr to launch an initiative to foster scientific literacy across the college, which included developing Human Understanding in a Material World, a writing-intensive course team-taught by faculty from biology, physics, and English. This course became the prototype for the Emily Balch Seminar Program, which now teaches all first-year students (approximately 350 students/year) critical thinking and writing skills. Typically, two to four science faculty teach STEM-themed seminars in this program each year.

A collaborative effort of the Tri-College Consortium (Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges), the Johanna Alderfer Harris Environmental Studies Program supports the Tri-Co Environmental Studies Minor]. The program and minor bring together scholars and students from across the natural and social sciences and the humanities, allowing students and faculty to explore the interactions among Earth systems, human societies, and local and global environments.

The 360º Course Cluster Program is a curricular innovation that provides students with the opportunity to work within a small learning community and develop interdisciplinary approaches to solving a particular set of problems. Approaching a topic from a full circle of perspectives, a cohort of students takes two or three courses (a "360º") from different departments over the course of a semester or a year, focusing on the history, economic concerns, cultural intersections and political impact of an era, decision, event, policy, or important scientific innovation/problem. The cohort also participates in experiences outside of the traditional classroom, which are integrated with the coursework.

Since the program's introduction in 2010"2011, we have offered four 360º clusters with significant STEM content:

  • Perspectives on Sustainability, a three-course 360º, constituted a multidisciplinary investigation of urban and educational policies crucial to urban sustainability. The cluster included education and urban studies courses, as well as a math course in which students mathematically modeled various quantitative aspects of problems in sustainability.
  • Renewable Energy, a two-course 360°, gave students the opportunity to explore energy alternatives from a data-driven perspective. Using the Bryn Mawr College campus as a case study, participants researched various sources of cost-effective renewable energy in a project-based seminar taught by a geology professor. Chosen topics were influenced by a series of guest speakers and the issues discussed in a paired lecture-based chemistry course.
  • Temperate and Tropical Costs in Transition, a two-course 360°, leveraged a biology course (Coastal & Marine Ecology) and a geology course (Marine Geology) to address the physical and ecological changes to the world's coasts brought about by climate change, including sea level rise and shifting species distributions. Students investigated temperate coastal environments (the barrier islands, estuaries and salt marshes of the Mid-Atlantic United States) and tropical coastal environments (the coral reefs, mangroves and rain forests of Belize).
  • Climate Change: Science and Politics, a three-course 360°, integrated philosophical, scientific, and policy perspectives to highlight both the complexity of climate change and the many innovative ideas proposed to address it. Through a geology course (Energy Resources and Sustainability), a philosophy course (Science Technology and the Good Life), and a political science course (Global Politics of Climate Change), students explored how scientific and technological development have combined with societal notions of the good life and public policy initiatives to promote our energy-intensive, growth-oriented consumer society. The cluster included a trip to Freiburg, Germany, a city with a history of progressive environmental policy and innovation.