Is it more effective to learn science through the common progression of disciplinary science classes or instead through an interdisciplinary approach? The University of Arizona has many students with science course requirements and scientific interests who might still not be planning on science careers or degrees. Narrowly focused courses might not be the most effective way to prepare these students for their future lives and careers. A few years back I was involved in teaching an interdisciplinary science course whose aim was to provide a more broadly integrated understanding of science.
The advantages of this approach is a more synthetic understanding of how knowledge is created. But interdisciplinary science is risky, because it can dilute important concepts and substitute superficial understandings and analogies for deep knowledge. When I was given the opportunity to help create an interdisciplinary course by mathematician Joceline Lega, I was skeptical, but more than intrigued enough to participate. The course’s focus was on scaling relationships across the sciences, including chemistry and physics (IS303: course website). I contributed a biologically focused module, discussing the limits to tree height and scaling laws that might provide a physical explanation to patterns seen in the real world. My part of the course involved a mathematical introduction, followed by field measurements of trees to test the ideas proposed. You can see below some of our students measuring the scaling relationship between tree radius and height on the Arizona campus.
A summary of the course, and a discussion of the learning outcomes, can be found in a paper we just had published at the Journal of College Science Teaching. The paper is paywalled but you can get a PDF from my website here.
So were we successful? By scoring student journals, our evaluator Sanlyn Buxner found that the course did not provide measurable changes in conceptual understandings of scientific concepts. But we did also find (through interviews) that many students did develop more understandings of the connections between fields. On the other hand, many students struggled to master the concepts in the class, had lower grades, and did not articulate interdisciplinary understandings.
My personal opinion on the course is that it was not a success, but it was an important first effort at providing a more useful introduction to science for non-scientists. Yet the challenges are large. First, the University of Arizona student population has very diverse educational backgrounds, making it difficult to teach a course like this effectively. Second, the nature of interdisciplinary teaching means inevitable tradeoffs between depth and breadth of coverage. I don’t know if these challenges can actually be solved by a course like the one we taught. But I think the time and money spent on the course were a worthwhile investment, and that we learned enough about trying that might make a second attempt more successful. You can read our JCST publication and decide for yourself!