Interdisciplinarity in the Classroom: The Experts in Teamwork Approach

Image Credit: Liliann Eidem, CC BY-SA 2.0

The concept of interdisciplinarity (essentially, scientists from different backgrounds working together to solve scientific questions) has played a major role in the development of ecology, and science in general, in the last few decades. As odd as it sounds, working across disciplines, even those as closely related as population and behavioural ecology, wasn’t a regular occurrence. Papers with one author were fairly commonplace.

That has changed, and it’s for the better. These days, statisticians have started to play a huge role in the development of ecology. Population, behavioral and evolutionary ecologists work together more and more. The rise of biosystematics has seen the integration of genetics into ecology. And while there’s still work to be done making those transitions more seamless, the progress has been significant. As Australian socioecologist Dr. Gretta Pecl puts it, nowadays “…a lot of science is team science. And I think that is a good thing in general, because all the big themes in science we have are not going to be solved by one researcher on their own. We’ve got some pretty massive issues that the world has to deal with, and the more minds that we have on those kinds of big problems the better.”

Yet there’s still room for the expansion of interdisciplinarity in science. Whilst the natural sciences are in closer contact these days, the marriage of social science and natural science is still only getting started. I’ve written often about the need for scientists to have some understanding about concepts underpinning sociology, anthropology, even history and literature, in order to connect to the public. Likewise, I’ve often said this should be introduced to students early on.

Which is why I was eager to attend a series of presentations last Wednesday by the students of this year’s Experts in Team program, which throws together undergraduates from a range of different disciplines and asks them to come up with a solution to a scientific or societal problem. It’s an important course, which introduces students to the premise of working across disciplines, forming a common language and finding shared goals at an early stage in their academic experience. One course’s theme within the Experts in Teamwork framework  was “Saving the World Isn’t Rocket Science”, which challenged students to engage others with an environmental problem.

Students’ backgrounds ranged from history to engineering to biology, with everything in between. Three of the four presentations focused on developing an exhibition for the Natural History Museum, with the fourth focusing on broadening access to 3D printing technology specifically eliminating the illegal trade of endangered species. All of the groups showed surprisingly complex understandings of scientific communication. There were sections on the importance of visual communication, progression between different media based on intended engagement level, and the bridging of the global/local dichotomy. There was also an understanding of the mediation of the overwhelming negatives presented by global ecological issues with the few opportunities that problems like climate change present.

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One of the groups focussed on the effect of humans on the Arctic ecosystem (Image Credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service, Public Domain Mark 1.0)

All the groups worked together well, and found uses for all of their specific backgrounds during the project. For example, the group which focused on human driven changes to the Arctic consisted of two biology students, who lent a strong scientific underpinning to the group. They were supported by a marine technology student, who was able to provide background on current anthropogenic stressors in the Arctic region, and a geotechnology student with a background in history who gave context for the role the Arctic ecosystem has played in human life over the past century.

This was just one example of students from different backgrounds coming together and utilizing their varied skills to find a complex solution to an ecological problem. It’s so important to introduce students to interdisciplinarity early on, and I hope this sort of course becomes a mainstay in more universities.

I congratulate all students involved and wish them all the best going forward.

*Whilst I’ve used this group as an example, each presentation given was equally well rounded and suitably complex. I should also add as a disclaimer that my opinion plays no role inn the marks given by the course leaders.

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