By Ana M. Corbacho
How can interdisciplinary courses for undergraduates move from being intuitively designed to theoretically based? How can course design accommodate cohorts of teachers, not previously experienced in interdisciplinarity, from across a university?
Here I share how colleagues and I developed courses where teams of university faculty worked with undergraduate students to tackle interdisciplinary problems.
I first describe three useful theoretical perspectives for building an interdisciplinary undergraduate course, namely:
- social constructivism and situated-learning theory
- academic motivation
- interdisciplinary education from a diversity perspective.
I then describe how we designed the program.
1. Three useful theoretical perspectives
Social constructivism and situated-learning theory
Learning is an active process in which students learn by doing, build new ideas based on their prior knowledge, construct hypotheses, and make decisions. Vygotsky’s social constructivism considers learning a social process in which learning is supported by collaboration and social interaction.
In situated-learning theory, learning involves engagement in a community of practice and developing a sense of belonging in the path to becoming a practitioner. Following these perspectives, we based our work in the literature on problem-based learning.
We used the MUSIC model of academic motivation as a framework to support course design. The model organizes motivation constructs into five categories:
- eMpowerment is related to autonomy and implies students perceive they have control of their learning environment
- Usefulness is associated with the perception that the coursework is useful to the students’ future
- Success is related to the perception that they can succeed at the coursework
- Interest is related the degree students perceive the instructional methods and the coursework as interesting
- Caring relates to the students’ perception that teachers and other students care about their well-being and success in the course.
Interdisciplinary education from a diversity perspective
Collaborative work presents difficulties that are exacerbated when individuals come from distant fields with different perspectives on the problem. To address this aspect, we drew from knowledge about team and group dynamics from social psychology, management psychology, the psychology of teaching and learning, and team science, especially:
- team effectiveness depends on the generation of interdependence among its members to solve a problem, which has three crucial aspects – establishing trust, developing cohesion, and conflict management.
- individuals have a greater attraction for individuals similar to themselves and experience greater cohesion and social integration in homogeneous groups, while group diversity may make social processes more difficult.
- different expectations are attributed to members of one’s group (eg., one’s discipline) than to individuals outside the group, generating a situation in which members outside the group are judged more stereotypically than those belonging to the group itself.
- positive interaction between individuals with different characteristics can improve intergroup attitudes, becoming an effective way to reduce prejudice and conflict between groups. Such interaction needs to occur under conditions in which individuals have equal status, share common goals, are in a cooperative or interdependent environment, and are supported by authorities.
2. Designing an interdisciplinary program
Our program included teacher training and undergraduate courses. The overall goal was to foster engagement with interdisciplinary teamwork by applying problem based learning strategies and supporting the development of skills for effectively working in diverse teams. The program characteristics (see the figure below) can be summarized as:
Interdisciplinary, because participants were from different knowledge areas and they worked on problems requiring knowledge integration across various disciplines.
Intensive, because they worked together for many hours a day, focussing efforts and deepening the development of group dynamics.
Integrated, because teachers worked towards integrating their perspectives before asking the students to do so. In addition, course integration also occurred in the sense of explicitly working on team-building, respect for diversity of perspectives, and stress management.
The training was open to all university faculty. It comprised a workshop and support during course planning and implementation.
Teachers were introduced to concepts of interdisciplinary education, problem-based learning, academic motivation, team science and stress management. Teachers then worked in teams of four to design problem-based learning activities for the undergraduate courses.
Five teacher teams (23 teachers) opted to implement new undergraduate courses. Twelve teachers were from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas (STEM), three from health sciences, and eight from social sciences, humanities, and arts (SSHA).
The teachers presented the theoretical background concerning interdisciplinary education, academic motivation, team science and stress management. The problem-based learning activities provided a setting for collaboration and a focus for meaningful work.
Six courses were developed requiring participation for 7–8 hours per day for 1-2 weeks. Courses differed in the specific problem addressed, as shown in the following three examples:
- one course considered disability with a focus on education as a human right. Students worked on identifying areas of possible intervention at a local level.
- another course focused on determining the water quality in a city river. Students developed a plan, made field trips, took water samples, and performed laboratory analyses.
- a third course focused on understanding plastic components, local recycling strategies, and the circular economy. In this case, students worked on building a steel shredder for plastic recycling and planned strategies to use it locally.
One hundred and ten undergraduate students participated from 28 study fields or careers (68 STEM, 24 health sciences, 18 SSHA).
What has your experience been of developing interdisciplinary undergraduate courses? Are there other theoretical perspectives that you have brought to bear? How have you trained faculty to teach such courses?
To find out more:
Corbacho, A. M., Minini, L., Pereyra, M., González-Fernández, A. E., Echániz, R., Repetto, L., Cruz, P., Fernández-Damonte, V., Lorieto, A. and Basile, M. (2021). Interdisciplinary higher education with a focus on academic motivation and teamwork diversity. International Journal of Educational Research Open, 2, 2: 100062. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedro.2021.100062. This paper provides references to the work presented in this blog post.
Biography: Ana M. Corbacho PhD is Associate Professor and Academic Coordinator at the Interdisciplinary Space (Espacio Interdisciplinario), University of the Republic (Universidad de la República, Udelar) in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her teaching and research focus on student-centered strategies that support the development of interdisciplinary teamwork.