Recently, UBC has been moving towards providing students with a more integrated approach to learning. Interdisciplinary approaches allow students an insight into other possible perspectives, and they allow students to formulate conclusions across multiple disciplines. At the 2012 CTLT Institute, the workshop Mixing It Up! Collaborating Across the Disciplines explored the different ways in which UBC is engaging in interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning.
The first presenter, Dr. Christina Hendricks, is the chair of the Arts One program. The program is open to first-year students in the Faculty of Arts. Arts One is team-taught, and it is an interdisciplinary program. A different interdisciplinary theme is explored each year in the program. The Arts One themes for this year, will include, Explorations and Encounters and Monsters in the Mirror.
Dr. Hendricks stated that what is great about Arts One is its structure. Arts One students attend a weekly lecture, and a seminar twice a week. Since the lecture and the seminar are held by two different professors, students get two different perspectives of the same topic. About twenty students meet for the seminar and they discuss the main themes in the texts. On top of the lecture and seminars, students are required to meet weekly in groups of four to peer review each other’s work. The students present their essays to the small group, and their peers are required to provide them with feedback. Dr. Hendricks stated that the small peer-review meetings are great for student learning, as students receive critical feedback from other students and the professor.
The faculty involved in Arts One, also benefit from the program. The structure of the program allows for faculty to learn about subjects that they don’t normally teach. Course instructors may be required to teach their colleague’s field too; “you don’t just teach your own subject of expertise.” For example, Dr. Hendricks, whose expertise is philosophy, stated that she had to teach Shakespeare to herself all over again. She stated that taking an interdisciplinary approach allows for professors to get over the challenge of “not always being an expert.” Teaching an interdisciplinary course that encompasses materials that aren’t in a faculty members’ field of specialty “helps you re-immerse yourself in the learning process,” stated Dr. Hendricks. A challenge is that “you will lose some control in your course.” Furthermore, Dr. Hendricks stated that “you will no longer be an authority figure that knows everything in the course; instead, you may have to recognize that you are also learning.” However, she stated “that letting go of that control, means that your course will have more space for students to create.”
Dr. Gordon Bates has been involved with Science One for eight years. He has taught the chemistry component of Science One for three years and, this fall, he will be starting his sixth year as the Director of the program. Science One, which is an offspring of Arts One, accepts 70 – 75 students a year. Students apply by submitting an application to the program. Eight professors are involved with teaching the courses, and the professors come from a wide range of science backgrounds: biology, physics, chemistry, and math.
Dr. Bates stated that Science One is interdisciplinary in that students are encouraged to make connections across all the science disciplines. He notes that some connections are “forced, while others are natural connections.” The program is also interdisciplinary in that students benefit from a range of guest lecturers. For example, an electrical-bicycle entrepreneur, who started his business from scratch, once came to give a talk to Science One students on business, science, and sustainability. Furthermore, students get a range of research-based and literature-based projects to complete, so they gain research and writing skills.
Statistics and Interdisciplinary Projects
Dr. Eugenia Yu is an instructor in the Department of Statistics. During the 2010/11 and 2011/12 academic years, she facilitated interdisciplinary collaborations between the Department of Statistics (at both undergraduate and graduate levels) and various courses through the UBC Mix Project. STAT 450: Case Studies in Statistics, is an undergraduate capstone course. This year, the course had seven students. Dr. Yu wanted her students to be able to apply the knowledge they had gained from their statistics majors to outside-the-classroom projects. Dr. Yu reached out to two non-statistics courses that required students to use statistical methodologies for their assignments. The Statistics Department collaborated with students from BIOL 363: Laboratory in Animal Physiology and POLI 423A: Issues in Comparative Politics, and with students from the School of Population and Public Health.
BIOL 363 was a class of over 100 students, so Dr. Yu asked for volunteers. Five biology students volunteered, and Dr. Yu paired them with her statistics students. The statistics students met one-on-one with the biology students to provide them with statistical consultancy. The statistics students were then required to write up their results and create a presentation on how they were able to help the biology students. This interdisciplinary approach to learning was beneficial for both sides: the statistics students found the project to be very rewarding because they were able to apply their knowledge to help students from other majors, while the non-statistics students benefited from the new knowledge they had gained.
UBC Mix and Global Issues in Arts and Sciences
Dr. Allen Sens co-teaches the interdisciplinary course ASIC 200: Global Issues in the Arts and Sciences, with Dr. David Ng. Dr. Sens teaches the Arts-based portion of the course, and Dr. Ng teaches the Science-based portion of the course. Arts students can get three Science credits, and science students can get three Arts credits by taking ASIC 200. Each year the main themes in the course change. In the past, some commonly discussed themes have included: climate change, molecular biology, and genetically modified organisms. In addition to understanding the broader questions behind these themes, all ASIC 200 students are required to partake in labs. Some examples of previous labs include a DNA finger printing lab.
If the course doesn’t already sound interdisciplinary enough, there is also a creative component to it. Students are required to submit a creative piece, such as a painting, song, or video, as one of the assignments. Dr. Sens stated that “the creative component helps reinforce the link between all the disciplinary approaches.” Dr. Sens noted that what makes the course great is that “the students from the two disciplines, Arts and Science, bring different skills and talents to the course.” This is particularly evident in the final term assignment, which requires students to engage in an interdisciplinary approach that reflects both perspectives. Finally, Dr. Sens stated that the course, through its interdisciplinary approach, “creates an understanding in students that there is another realm to consider.”
Using the AMS Sustainability Projects Fund
Justin Ritchie is the Sustainability Coordinator for the UBC Alma Mater Society (AMS). The AMS provides course instructors and students with a sustainability fund to support any projects that wish to include a sustainability component into the learning experience. UBC students contribute $2.25 of their AMS fees towards this fund, so there is a total of $120,000 that is contributed towards this project. Once an instructor or student has an idea that includes a sustainability component, they can submit their idea for review. Examples of already existing projects on campus include the funding for the UBC Solar Car team, a geography course which created their own garden, and the UBC bottle water campaign.
Discussions and Questions
After the panel discussion, the group attendees discussed questions related to interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning. Two questions were discussed, “how can I make my existing course more interdisciplinary?” and “what are the barriers and challenges that exist around interdisciplinary teaching and learning?”
Some workshop attendees suggested approaching the first question using problem-based learning (PBL). The attendees suggested creating a problem to trigger interdisciplinary learning in the students. One of the workshop attendees stated that the “nature of PBL,” means that students will bring in their own interdisciplinary approaches to solve the problem. They will usually approach the problem from multiple perspectives.
A course instructor for an engineering technical communication course, made her course more interdisciplinary though the assignments. The students were required to approach the assignments from three angles: an environmental angle, an economic angle, and a social angle. For example, if a student was researching iPhones, they would be required to research how they are manufactured, where are they manufactured, and the social implications of manufacturing the iPhones.
Workshop attendees mentioned that it may sometimes be difficult to “sustain interdisciplinary conversations amongst students.” Some easy steps to ensure students remain interested in interdisciplinary approaches could include encouraging students to attend other lectures, or encourage an end-of-class reflection on interdisciplinary approaches.
Workshop attendees also mentioned that another difficulty with teaching through an interdisciplinary approach was that students may not understand what exactly is expected of them. To avoid confusion, it is important to lay out clear expectations and parameters. A workshop attendee added that the parameters should not be too constraining, and students should understand that their projects can be open-ended. A workshop attendee stated that students should understand that “a range” exists in interdisciplinary approaches; that the same topic can be approached in various ways.
Interdisciplinary approaches evidently offer students a chance to view things from a different perspective. From the presenters’ examples of interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning at UBC, and the discussion group topics, the workshop attendees walked away with strategies on how to make their teaching more interdisciplinary.