Magazine article Liberal Education

Integrated Learning and Research across Disciplinary Boundaries: Engaging Students

Magazine article Liberal Education

Integrated Learning and Research across Disciplinary Boundaries: Engaging Students

Article excerpt

AS CAMPUSES ACROSS THE COUNTRY explore ways to strengthen interdisciplinary studies and involve undergraduates in research, questions emerge about how best to integrate existing course offerings and majors, develop curricular rigor and agility, and strengthen administrative coordination. The structural obstacles to crossing disciplinary boundaries and integrating the curriculum are real, but they often cloud the larger conceptual task or vision that must come first. In Integrative Learning: Mapping the Terrain, Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings (2004, 1) note that while "many colleges and universities are creating opportunities for more integrative, connected learning," often such innovations "exist in isolation, disconnected from other parts of the curriculum and from other reform efforts." In addition, the programs that are implemented typically have their own faculty and staff advocates who act independently of the university's central priorities for undergraduate education (Schoem 2002).

In this article, we discuss two successful initiatives to integrate interdisciplinary study and participation in research into the core mission of undergraduate education at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. The first of these, the Forum Seminars, introduces students to specific cross-disciplinary topics and faculty in these areas. The second, the Bridging Disciplines Programs (BDP), takes students a step further by using the forum seminar as a foundation course for an eighteen-to twenty-four hour interdisciplinary certificate program that complements the student's major and is built around general education requirements, electives, and research.

The vision for these initiatives emanates from the university's identity as a large and diverse research institution and its desire to provide the majority of its students with the kinds of unique educational opportunities that have typically been reserved for honors students. Our goals were two-tiered: first, we wanted to develop programs that weave research and cross-disciplinary perspectives into the fabric of students' undergraduate education, and second, in doing so, we wanted to ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of these programs by building on the existing faculty research strengths and course offerings. Before describing these programs in more detail, we first identify the key factors or guiding principles that we believe are central to the success of the initiatives.

Build on existing resources. UT Austin serves the largest undergraduate student body in the nation, with baccalaureate degrees in eleven schools and colleges and more than 130 majors. With ten thousand courses offered each semester, UT Austin provides immense resources for learning, and particularly learning across disciplines. It also has a large and diverse faculty involved in a broad array of research endeavors and interdisciplinary collaborations. However, it is this immensity of choice that makes it difficult for students to take full advantage of those resources on their own.

In order to capitalize on the size and scope of the curriculum, UT Austin needed to offer students some navigational tools. Rather than create numerous new courses, we conceptualized a set of roadmaps through UT's already rich curriculum. These routes were designed to help students construct meaningful intellectual narratives for connecting their coursework across disciplines and to research throughout the years of their undergraduate experience.

Make research and creative innovation central. Although a small number of students have traditionally found research placements through informal channels, we recognized the need to create more accessible and transparent paths to undergraduate participation in research. While such paths did not have much precedent at the university, the process of obtaining "buy-in" from the schools and colleges was made easier by the fact that research is so central to the university's identity. …

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