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New Course Transcends Disciplinary Boundaries

Psychology professor Eric Landrum leads a small group discussion in class.

Psychology professor Eric Landrum leads a small group discussion in class.

Higher education has long been defined by disciplinary boundaries, those silos of expertise housed in colleges and departments across campus.

But the newest trend in education promises to shatter those boundaries. Transdisciplinary thinking and research call for cooperation between disciplines to solve complex problems and challenges. And an innovative new course is teaching not only the importance of this concept, but how to achieve it.

ArtSci 397, Transdisciplinary Research Methods, is cross-listed in several departments. The 26 students enrolled in this initial course offering come from psychology, geology, math, anthropology, sociology, communications and history. Credit can be earned for either a finishing foundation course or an upper-division elective, depending on department guidelines.

History professor Nick Miller leads a small group discussion in class.

History professor Nick Miller with students.

The course was conceived by a cross-disciplinary faculty team, including Liljiana Babinkostova and Marion Scheepers, mathematics; Stephanie Bacon, art; Eric Landrum, psychology; Nick Miller, history; and Karen Viskupic, geosciences.

Program goals are to increase student awareness of the similarities that prevail in otherwise different fields and to work with students on ways to work transdisciplinarily.”

“We also want to build empathy among and between disciplines,” said Miller.

Three years in the making, the course encourages students to look at challenges from a collaborative point of view, allowing them to problem solve using ideas from more than one field. Given the increasing complexity of the workplace, faculty believe students will be better prepared for success post-graduation.

“They’ll discover that their discipline doesn’t answer all their questions – there may be need for input from other disciplines,” Babinkostova said. “The goal is to realize how much they have to contribute to the discussion and help them learn critical thinking skills.”

An example of how the course works is an assignment given to students by Bacon, an artist. “I asked how research could be used in contemporary art and asked them to step into the shoes of a contemporary artist and propose work that drew on another discipline,” she said. “Their responses were thoughtful and creative.

“We want them to know it is safe to express ideas in a discipline you are not an expert in,” she said. “It’s OK to trespass intellectually and it will be important to them in the future, both professionally and personally.”