Initial Publication Date: October 16, 2015

Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

Interdisciplinary Academic Programs and Courses

Support from HHMI enabled our Division of Natural and Applied Sciences to shift from research programs and curricula that were primarily discipline-focused to include interdisciplinary programs that have led to interdisciplinary majors and minors.The first major effort was the creation of the biochemistry program in the early 1990s. This program was the first to have a faculty member appointed to two different departments, biology and chemistry. The success of this joint appointment has served as a model for other multi-departmental faculty appointments who support the neuroscience program and environmental science program. Most recently, joint appointments have begun to span not just two departments but two divisions. In 2009, with HHMI support, Hope hired its first faculty member with a joint appointment in the math and education departments, which are in the Natural and Applied Science Division and Social Science Division, respectively. While it is definitely challenging to deal with the logistical and cultural differences between the departments and divisions, the benefits—in terms of added communication and opportunities for faculty and students to engage in interdisciplinary activities and communication similar to what they will face in the workplace—are well worth the challenge.

STEM Interdisciplinary Programs

  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Hope's biochemistry and molecular biology major started as a collaboration between the chemistry and biology departments back in the 1990s. HHMI funding was critical for hiring the first of two faculty members with a joint appointments in both departments. The course requirements for the major are drawn from both departments as well as some interdisciplinary courses specifically created to meet the needs of students interested in these fields and as required for accreditation by the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).
  • Environmental Science In the 1990s, an environmental science minor was created. Students can major in any discipline, but must select from a range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses that help students reach the following goals:
    • A solid preparation in one of the academic science or engineering majors;
    • An understanding of how each major can be applied to environmental science problem-solving;
    • A broad interdisciplinary understanding of the field of environmental science;
    • Knowledge of how environmental issues are connected to political and economic issues;
    • An ability to work in a team with people from scientific and non-scientific backgrounds; and
    • A fundamental understanding of the principles of sustainability as applied to resource use, energy use, and environmental impacts.
    The interdisciplinary courses were developed and taught by interdisciplinary teams of faculty. One joint faculty appointment was created in environmental science and chemistry. Regardless of major, all environmental science students must take the capstone course, which is an interdisciplinary research project of their own design.
  • Neuroscience Our neuroscience program leading to a minor in neuroscience exemplifies how Hope fosters interdisciplinary and integrative learning and has become a model for other programs developed at the college. The neuroscience minor, created in the late 1990s, has primary staff with appointments in the biology, chemistry, and psychology departments and affiliated staff in the departments of education, engineering, nursing, and philosophy. The minor consists of an introduction to neuroscience course, which has no prerequisite courses and includes a project-based laboratory, and two advanced neuroscience research courses, in which students design and carry out, with faculty input, a major research project. The remaining courses for the neuroscience minor can be taken from seven different departments and include courses in animal behavior, signal analysis and communications and philosophy of mind. A primary strength of the program is the involvement of students from many different majors, who come to the program with different ways of thinking and knowing. (For details on course and program development, see Chase, L. A., J. Stewart, and C. C. Barney, 2006, Cultivation of an Interdisciplinary, Research-Based Neuroscience Minor at Hope College. June, 5:A6-A13.
  • A computational science and modeling minor was piloted with the 2004 award. It was an interdisciplinary program stressing the application of computation to scientific problems spanning a variety of STEM fields. Although the effort provided the infrastructure that is currently being used for computational modeling in chemistry and biology, the interdisciplinary minor was not successful in that it failed to attract a large enough number of students. Increasing interest in careers in the health professions, reluctance to engage in mathematics-intensive courses, and declining interest at Hope in careers in computer science all played a role in limiting the attractiveness of a computational science and modeling minor for our students. However, the use of computational methods in various STEM courses continues to increase at Hope.
  • Day1 Research Communities In the last few years, Hope has added a laboratory component to the introduction to engineering course, generally taken by first-year students, that includes an engineering design problem presented by a community member. The students work in teams to design and build a working prototype. The experience culminates with a presentation of their prototype to the community member. Having this real-world design problem allows first-year students to try on an identity as an engineer, and to see how they can make a difference. In other disciplines, the integrative experiences comes through engagement in individual faculty research programs or through internships.
  • General Education Math and Science courses were developed as part of a general education restructuring initiative in 1996. These interdisciplinary courses are designed by teams of faculty to build a mathematical and scientific understanding of the world. Most of the GEMS courses have elements of STEM research embedded. The GEMS curriculum included topical, investigative courses. These are two-credit courses intended to build on the skills acquired in the four-credit lab courses.

Interdisciplinary STEM Courses

Day1 Research Community Courses

4-credit GEMS interdisciplinary science and engineering Courses

Two-Credit GEMS Mathematics Courses

Two-Credit GEMS Interdisciplinary, Investigative Science and Engineering Courses

Linked Courses

Integrative Linked Courses

In addition to the interdisciplinary majors and minors, as a part of the PURE Interdisciplinary, Investigative Case Studies program (2004–2009) faculty explored ways to bring interdisciplinary thinking into their disciplinary courses. They developed interdisciplinary case studies that were investigative, meaning students were given a case and had to pose their own questions to study. This could be viewed as an early version of "research in the classroom." The original case studies continue to evolve each year–one is unchanged, while others look very different, and some have gone away completely. Changes in curricula, courses, and course instructors played an important role in limiting the sustainability of the case studies. The development of the interdisciplinary cases studies was facilitated through faculty workshops focused on design and assessment. Goals included helping our students develop interdisciplinary inquiry skills and learning more about the benefits and limitations to disciplinary approaches to problems. In hindsight it is clear that our current efforts continue to benefit from the skills, ways of thinking, and cross-disciplinary relationships that faculty developed.

Integrative Advanced Courses

Integrative learning is fostered through a variety of courses and opportunities, in addition to interdisciplinary courses. There are several courses that are described as capstone courses in which students integrate the knowledge and skills they have developed throughout their undergraduate experience. The environmental science and neuroscience capstone courses engage students in a research project. The engineering design course engages students in a design project. It is a year-long course in which students first focus on developing creativity, independent thinking and the ability to overcome unexpected problems, like professional engineers do on the job. In the second semester students work in teams to solve an engineering design problem and build a working prototype. This real-world, hands-on experience requires students to integrate their learning from over the course of their undergraduate education and allows them to experience what it might be like to work as an engineer.

Fostering Integrative and Interdisciplinary Efforts Beyond the Classroom


The Schaap Science Center, built in 2004, was designed not only to support student-faculty collaborative research, but to facilitate interaction between faculty from different disciplines with the goal of increasing collaboration. Research spaces are organized based on common research facility/instrumentation needs, not disciplines. Instrumentation spaces in both the Schaap Science Center and the VanderWerf STEM Center encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects.

  • Hope Ion Beam Analysis Laboratory (HIBAL) uses a particle accelerator to explore not only the elemental composition of objects, but the location of these elements on the surface and near the surface of the object. The techniques developed in this facility are used by faculty and student researchers in biology, chemistry, geology, and physics, and by several local industries. Current research projects include studies in environmental science, forensics, nuclear physics and national/homeland security.
  • The materials characterization lab houses three different instruments used by multiple research groups to study material surfaces and structures. The scanning electron microscope and atomic force microscope are used to image surfaces at micrometer scales. The cathodoluminescence system is used to understand the lattice and elemental structure of materials. The techniques developed in this facility are used by faculty and student researchers in biology, chemistry, geology, and physics, and by several local industries.
  • The 400 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer facility is utilized in multiple research programs and classes.


From 2004–2008, seed grants for interdisciplinary research and curriculum development allowed faculty to develop new research programs that crossed boundaries between physics, computer science, mathematics, biology, and chemistry. Several of those programs are thriving today, engaging students in interdisciplinary research teams that are supported by NSF and other funding agencies. While not a requirement of the 2012–2016 faculty research award program, many of the projects funded have been new exploratory interdisciplinary efforts.

Dissemination Efforts

Dissemination of findings is not only an expectation for the professional researcher, it provides valuable opportunities for researchers to learn from others and to evaluate the value of the work in the broader community. Thus, providing opportunities for students to integrate dissemination of their work into their experience is key to preparing them to engage in the global STEM professional community. Dissemination opportunities are varied, but institutional support for several conference experiences has proven beneficial at Hope: