Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

We believe that we will best prepare our students for the future by engaging them with the complexity of real world problems using the breadth of their liberal arts education. Our 2014 strategic plan for the sciences, Vision for the Future 2015 (Summer Strategic Planning Committee, 2014), identifies engaging with the world as a central strategic direction. We are guided by the principle that interactions with bona fide scientific problems that connect our students to the larger world will facilitate the best learning. We work to involve our students with complex and contemporary problems, ranging from the local to global, that are best understood through the multiple disciplinary lenses of the liberal arts.

The sciences at Smith have worked to provide opportunities for students to deepen their disciplinary knowledge in a societal context by engaging with big questions that tackle real-world problems. The biggest scientific challenges of our time requires engagement beyond the limits of any one disciplinary perspective, with scientists increasingly collaborating with others across STEM fields as well as the humanities and social sciences to accomplish and disseminate their work. At Smith, we are building on the successes of integrative and interdisciplinary learning experiences and programs across our curriculum, including our efforts to develop liberal arts modules in computer programming classes as well as our innovative capstone and integrative learning experiences offered in our ABET-accredited engineering and innovative interdisciplinary programs and centers.

Liberal Arts Modules in Computer Science

Through an innovative Project Kaleidoscope/Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM (PKAL/TIDES) grant, Smith is re-envisioning how to present computer programming in the context of a suite of courses where students have their first exposure to computer science in order to boost access to the discipline for underrepresented students. Faculty in engineering, mathematics, and computer science are developing "liberal arts modules" in six courses as a means of grounding abstract programming in the reality of applications to areas across the curriculum, from the sciences to social sciences to the arts. These courses introduce self-contained, multidisciplinary modules where students use computer programming applied to engaging intellectual tasks, such as the use of cell phones as a resource in modern medicine, GIS mapping of Paris over the centuries to provide a sense of the city inhabited by characters of French novels, and analyzing delay times from the massive Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) airline delays database. The goal is to prepare Smith women to use computer programming as a tool for research, study, and problem-solving in whatever field they ultimately decide to pursue.

These courses also build on the success and lessons from our Peer Mentoring program as well as our physics department's effective Learning Assistant (LA) program developed to work in the integrated lab/lecture in our introductory physics classes. The PKAL/TIDES initiative is developing an integrated support system of Learning Assistants for our beginning students as well as supports for our Learning Assistants, thereby providing rigorous social support and training that will help to broaden access while simultaneously deepening disciplinary knowledge across students.

Picker Engineering Program

Launched in 2000, the ABET-accredited Picker Engineering Program made Smith College the first women's college to offer a bachelor's degree in engineering sciences with the goal of increasing women's representation in the field at a time when their participation is low and declining in the field. The Picker Program is also firmly grounded in its home at a liberal arts college, where students are taught to think in different ways that help them to understand and contextualize engineering in the context of larger societal questions.

One distinctive feature of the Picker Program is its Design Clinic, a year-long applied capstone experience for senior students wherein they partner with real clients from government, industry, and non-profit organizations to work on real projects. In teams, students engage one another and the technical liaisons from the sponsoring partner organizations to solve a challenge while simultaneously participating in weekly seminars that hone their engineering design and professional practice skills. The program began in 2003, and Smith students have already worked with forty partners on eighty different projects.

Interdisciplinary Majors and Research Centers


  • Summer Strategic Planning Committee (2014, November). Vision for the Future, 2015: Strategic Planning. Smith College: Author. Vision for the Future pdf (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 144kB Oct20 15)
  • Scordilis, S.P. and T.S. Litwin, 2005. Integrating technology, science and undergraduate education at Smith College: The creation of student-faculty research centers. CUR Quarterly, 25: 138-140.

Building on the success of longstanding interdisciplinary programs, like Biochemistry, the sciences at Smith have seen explosive growth in a series of innovative, interdisciplinary programs, including Neuroscience, Statistical and Data Science, and Environmental Science and Policy over the last decade. The intellectual work of the student, faculty, and staff within these programs uses the resources and expertise provided by the college's intellectual centers, including the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability, the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station in West Whately, MA, and the Spinelli Center for Quantitative Learning. By leveraging the opportunities, technology, and learning laboratories across these centers, Smith students learn to integrate knowledge across disciplines as they address meaningful scientific questions with real-world implications.

The Four College Biomath Consortium (4CBC) originally organized by Smith and funded through an NSF Undergraduate in Biomathematical Sciences Training Grant, has offered curricular and research offerings to students interested in biomathematics. Through this grant, the program brought together over twenty-five faculty across institutions and disciplines, including chemistry, engineering, biological sciences, computer science, neuroscience, and mathematics and statistics to collaborate on teaching and research related to contemporary biomathematics, focused on geometric approaches to the exploration of biological problems. We built on this success by developing an early course-based research offering, Frontiers in Biomathematics, through subsequent funding by HHMI. The faculty and offerings in the 4CBC also provide structure to Smith's concentration in Biomathematical Science. More recently, this consortium has evolved to become a Five College Biomathematical Sciences Certificate Program, including students and faculty from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Other central foci of interdisciplinary work in the sciences involves Smith's five multidisciplinary research centers in the Clark Science Center:

The concept of the centers grew around the desire of science faculty to have intellectual centers that expressed and supported their commitment to innovative pedagogy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and cutting-edge scholarship, particularly in collaboration with students (Scordilis & Litwin, 2005). Launched with support with HHMI, the college, and NSF Major Research Instrumentation grants, these centers also offered the advantage of centralizing and capitalizing on our instrumentation and human resources, especially through instrumentation technology instructors who could provide critical teaching and research assistance on the advanced equipment. A survey of center users in 2008 found that students reported that their overall experience was either good (28.6%) or excellent (71.4%). The majority (over 80%) strongly agreed that the center they used provided scientific or other knowledge that they might not have otherwise gained and was a good way to learn about the process of scientific research. Finally, the majority of users (approximately 75%) self-reported increased confidence on a variety of scientific learning outcomes, including understanding how scientists think, readiness for more challenging research, ability to learn laboratory techniques, and tolerance of obstacles that happen in the research process. Together, the centers are visited by hundreds of student-researchers and quite a number of classes each year; they are also a draw for our Summer Science and Engineering Program as well as our Science Outreach visitors, including local schools and workshop participants.

Integrative Learning

Smith supports opportunities for integrative and experiential learning driven by the principle that student interactions with bona fide scientific challenges connected to the larger world will facilitate their learning. Through the Praxis program, every Smith student is guaranteed a college-funded stipend to pursue a substantive, unpaid summer internship related to her academic and career interests. Over 400 students engage in the program every year in the U.S. as well as abroad and gain experience integrating their liberal arts education with the broader world in a way that prepares them for professional work and advanced study.

Other integrative learning, including capstone coursework within departments and community-based learning projects through the Jandon Center for Community Collaboration (CCC), helps to fuse student engagement within and outside the classroom through fieldwork and partnerships beyond the college. Through community-based courses, engagement, and participatory research, the CCC promotes a campus-wide culture of responsive citizenship to our surrounding communities. Outreach programs that target local schools, adult learning centers, and teacher development are also coordinated through the CCC, including popular Science Outreach programs which provide over 200 of our students opportunities to teach and engage thousands of K–12 students, adult learners, and area science teachers each year.

Concentrations are also newly available opportunities that complement the college's major and minor areas of study and provide a means of integrating coursework, practical experiences, and independent research in topics as wide-ranging as biomathematical sciences, climate change, community engagement and social change, and sustainable food. Through gateway, elective, and capstone coursework as well as required hands-on practical and research experiences, students develop an interdisciplinary and integrative understanding of complex problems in the real world capitalizing on on-campus networks, centers, and resources. For example, the Biomathematical Sciences Concentration has led to the creation of the Five College Biomathematical Sciences Certificate Program that brings together faculty from across the Pioneer Valley (from Smith, Amherst, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke Colleges as well as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst) to collaborate and provide cross-disciplinary teaching and research opportunities to students. Each student pursuing a Concentration or Certificate receives focused advising on how to design and individualize their focus of study.