Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

The BRAID: Experiments in Stitching Together Disciplines at a Big Ten University

Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

The BRAID: Experiments in Stitching Together Disciplines at a Big Ten University

Article excerpt


Since 2005 we have pursued a formal research program called the BRAID (Bringing Relationships Alive through Interdisciplinary Discourse), which is designed to develop and test strategies for training first- and second-year undergraduate science students to bridge scientific disciplines. The BRAID's ongoing multiyear investigation points to preliminary conclusions about what does and does not promote student interdisciplinary thinking. Perhaps not surprisingly, our research suggested the most effective technique for helping introductory students see science in integrated terms has been the most direct: explicitly discussing and engaging in debate about the connections found in the real world in a seminar setting. On the other hand, adding a thin gilding of interdisciplinarity to existing courses accomplishes little. Our goal is not to devise the "ideal" interdisciplinary educational experience, but one that is efficient and sustainable in a wide range of existing curricular structures. We are particularly sensitive to the need to avoid creating eclectic models dependent on our particular institutional setting.

The case for interdisciplinary science education

It is tempting-and on some level appropriate- for students to think of science as a vast intellectual Wal-Mart. Over here you find the products of the chemical bond, over there the products of cell physiology, all ready for application to human problems and needs (including getting into a desirable graduate or professional program). You can shop science for suitable knowledge and skills, much as you might throw a pair of shoes, a tub of ice cream, and a bike tire in your shopping cart. College itself often inadvertently strengthens this view of science by stacking up facts and techniques within the discrete mental aisles of individual courses and discrete disciplines.

And students do not always appreciate the diverse selection. A chemistry major might not wish to participate in a big shopping expedition, or see the need for it. General education or major requirements thrust a shopping list in her hands that pushes her reluctantly into aisles with "soft" courses like biology and, worse, "irrelevant" ones in the humanities and the social sciences. Her goal here is to bargain hunt: to grab the prize grade with the minimal expenditure of work and thought, and to pour the savings into her "real" courses. The compartmentalization of tertiary science education allows-indeed, frequently rewards-such narrowly expedient attitudes.

Science educators aspire, for both professional and civic reasons, to educate broadly, yet our aspirations to inspire creativity, flexibility, and inquisitiveness crash against what we produce. What our students learn, or do not learn, is a much less elevated reality, as a steady stream of blue-ribbon reports has lamented for the past twenty years (AAAS, 1990; NRC, 1997, 2003; NSF, 1996; Project Kaleidoscope, 1991). One result is the production of too many science graduates with an indifferent grasp of deeper critical and integrative skills. Another is the leaky pipeline by which students leave science programs altogether, a loss of talent that is particularly severe among women and students of color (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).

Another recent, high-profile reform effort captures the widespread consensus that undergraduate science education must become more interdisciplinary. Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians is a call to action from the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, driven by acute concerns that the typical premedical curriculum, which has remained largely stagnant for decades, no longer adequately prepares students for medical practice (AAMC-HHMI, 2009). The report insists that colleges and universities should phase out checklists of prerequisite premed courses and redirect students towards the mastery of a core (but not static) set of science competencies: "emphasis should be on defined areas of knowledge, scientific concepts, and skills rather than on specific courses or disciplines. …

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