Paper Session: Examining Interdisciplinary Educational Approaches to Transform Learning Experiences

Tuesday, August 2, 2022
3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET

Improving Creative Innovation and Interdisciplinary Collaboration among STEM Graduate Students through the Humanities

Sue Hum 

Abstract: Today's STEM graduate students will enter careers where the most impactful scientific advances are made by teams of researchers from different disciplines. Therefore, these graduate students must learn not only to work across their own disciplinary specialty, but also to creatively integrate the scientific knowledge with other disciplines to meet the needs of contemporary society. We expected that introducing STEM students to the Humanities (Art and English) would inculcate skills of creative innovation and transdisciplinary synthesis, crucial aspects for generating ground-breaking knowledge, methods, and perspectives. We expected that students' experiences in a month-long workshop would contribute to their research and career readiness in three outcomes: (a) increased competence in discovery and innovation; (b) improvement in ability to communicate across science audiences and with the general public; and (c) capacity, skills, and effectiveness in interdisciplinary teamwork. This presentation begins by first investigating the value of creative innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration for STEM graduate students, addressing the decline of creativity indicators even as it emerges as a key competency in STEM education (Cropley 2015). Second, we report on the findings of a four-week, pilot STEAM workshop, conducted in summer 2021, where fourteen graduate students engaged in systematic, structured, hands-on experiences, based on high impact practices from the Humanities. These experiences involved discovery activities, interdisciplinary partnerships, intellectual risk-taking, and experiential learning, all of which are designed to facilitate creativity and instill ways of working across disciplines. Third, we highlight the successes and challenges faced among participants, facilitators, and researchers, especially as we assess the workshop outcomes. We provide summaries of our qualitative observations, results from pre- and post-workshop surveys, weekly participant satisfaction surveys, and students' workshop products. For example, we did not anticipate the widespread interest in the workshop as demonstrated by the much higher than expected number of applications. We selected 14 participants from the 40 applications and received an overwhelmingly positive response to this STEAM workshop. Participants strongly encouraged STEAM workshop organizers to introduce training in this format early in doctoral students' programs and to bring them back each summer to further refine the transferable skills they developed during the workshop. Finally, we conclude our presentation by addressing the theoretical, methodological, and practical implications for supporting innovation and collaboration, lessons learned, and improvements for the future.


Cropley, D. H. (2015). Promoting creativity and innovation in engineering education. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 9 (2). 161-171.

A Holistic Approach to the Climate Emergency: Transdisciplinary Collaborative PhD Pilot at the University of British Columbia

Aishwarya Ramachandran

Abstract: We live in urgent times. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to intensify warnings of catastrophic climate impacts. With ever-increasing challenges facing us in the 21st century, we are regularly confronted with a need for broader multi- and trans-disciplinary approaches to co-creating new knowledge. In this presentation, student and faculty researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) describe building a relational research model to tackle the climate emergency through a cohort-based, collaborative PhD one-year pilot program, beginning in September 2022. We showcase two phases of the program design process: an examination of what has been "done before" in terms of collaborative transdisciplinary programming at UBC, and an ongoing meta-study of a group of students and faculty members involved in collaboratively designing the doctoral program. In the first phase, we used surveys and focus groups to examine student and faculty experiences in a selection of collaborative, transdisciplinary graduate-level programs at UBC. We were interested in understanding their perceived strengths and weaknesses and using them to inform the design and delivery of our new pilot program. The second phase focuses on the involvement of students and faculty members across UBC in collaboratively conceptualizing, designing, and organizing course materials for the program. We use participant observation, interviews and focus groups to analyze this "co-design" process as it unfolds, examining how participants interact; how they collaborate with other (e.g co-writing, co-presenting); what they learn from participating in co-design; and how their interactions will lead to the development of a rigorous doctoral program. Our findings reveal the importance of transdisciplinary programs in connecting UBC researchers with government, communities, and businesses and introducing students to a wide range of potential employers and careers outside academia. Students and faculty members appreciated working with non-academic partners on "real-world" problems and learning to translate and transform their research based on the needs and expectations of diverse stakeholders. They highlighted the importance of making professional connections with researchers across departments and faculties, suggesting they led to unexpected research and teaching collaborations. While programs use networking events to foster initial connections among students and faculty, we found that ongoing communication and collaboration through team projects and shared work spaces emerged as critically necessary "next steps" to developing and sustaining the disciplinary pluralism and problem-solving skills necessary to transdisciplinary work. Participants also suggested it was important to represent several disciplinary perspectives about a specific research problem on equal footing-for example, by intentionally structuring teams to include a diversity of epistemic backgrounds.

A Comparison of Interdisciplinarity Education Programs at the Undergraduate and Graduate Levels at the University of Waterloo

Chloé St. Amand

Abstract: This talk will compare and discuss the approaches, benefits, and drawbacks of a graduate and an undergraduate program at the University of Waterloo. In the last few decades, there has been an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary problem solving across sectors, and more calls for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research approaches. If we assume that interest in interdisciplinarity will continue to grow, then there will be demand for a cohort of researchers, educators, and workers who have knowledge and experience working across disciplines. One perennial question in this realm is when to teach interdisciplinarity, and how this decision affects the development of disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary skills. Some universities take an approach of teaching it to graduate students, alongside their disciplinary training, so that they can apply these skills in a way that is relevant to their disciplinary work. Others take the approach of teaching interdisciplinarity to undergraduate students who can benefit from being introduced to a variety of disciplinary perspectives early on for a more holistic educational experience. This talk will discuss the characteristics of interdisciplinarity education in each setting using two case studies: the Knowledge Integration program, a four-year undergraduate degree, housed in the university's Faculty of Environment, and the Collaborative Water Program, which is cohosted between departments in all six faculties and open to masters and PhD students hailing from 22 different programs. Both case studies were analyzed using Nissani's four metrics for determining the degree of interdisciplinarity. These include the number of disciplines involved, the novelty or creativity involved in the combination of disciplinary characteristics, the degree of integration, and the 'distance' between them (Nissani, 1995). The Knowledge Integration program was found to exhibit a high degree of interdisciplinarity, provide students with a broad and diverse knowledge base, and included many opportunities for students to practice interdisciplinary collaboration and integration. The Collaborative Water Program was found to be predominantly multidisciplinary, with some opportunities for integration that could make it interdisciplinary, depending on how the courses are taught from year-to-year. The Collaborative Water Program was also found to be vulnerable to fostering very narrow interdisciplinarity, since half of the faculties are represented through only one of their departments. This suggests that undergraduate interdisciplinary education lends itself well to the development of skills across multiple disciplines, while graduate interdisciplinary education is more likely to be narrower in scope and in service to one's development in their pre-established discipline.