Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Education Part I

Monday's meeting drew a packed room as we gathered to hear and discuss our experiences and practice with interdisciplinary education.  From Sarah we heard a fascinating story of Entomology 1, where students explore the biology of insects through art (post to come!), and from Jenni we heard how scientific concepts bolster polydisciplinary exploration in introductory literature courses:
First, content can require knowledge from multiple disciplines, as when I ask my students to prepare presentations on topics from physics (e.g. the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment), from cultural history (e.g. the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties), and from literary studies (e.g. dramatic satire) to facilitate the class' reading of science plays. In my freshman seminars on science plays, my students about equally frequently choose to learn an entirely new topic and to present on subjects they already know fairly well.
Second, reaching out to students outside the discipline can help draw them in to service courses. I use, for example, poems by James Clerk Maxwell and a contemporary short story about a relationship between humans and aliens that is arguably either symbiotic or parasitic, in my introductory course in literature.
Third, analogies to other disciplinary methods are another way to help students into the material I am teaching. I offer analogies between the form of the lab report and that of a literary essay.
Fourth, and rarely a significant part of my own teaching practice, are studies drawing not only on interdisciplinary knowledge but also on multidisciplinary methods. I've never felt comfortable attempting this level of integration on top of the other objectives of the courses UC Davis has allowed me to teach.

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