Thinking, Teaching, and Learning Science outside the Boxes: Reconsidering Interdisciplinarity in Science Instruction

By McComas, William F. | The Science Teacher, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Thinking, Teaching, and Learning Science outside the Boxes: Reconsidering Interdisciplinarity in Science Instruction


McComas, William F., The Science Teacher


If Englishman Thomas Young (1773-1829) is known today, he is probably recognized only by students of physics or those with a passion for trivia, for Young is frequently called "the last person to know everything." In spite of competition from other polymaths, such as Aristotle, Erasmus, da Vinci, Leibniz, Kircher, Gauss, Diderot, Jefferson, and Asimov, one can certainly make the claim that Young is a strong contender for the title.

Young was a physician who devised a method for determining drug dosage in children and proposed a germ theory of disease. He was also a physicist who worked in optics, color vision, surface tension, and capillary action. Young performed the double slit experiment demonstrating the wave properties of light, investigated elasticity (think Young's modulus here), and defined energy in the modern sense. In addition, he spoke at least 10 languages, played a major role in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, served on the Board of Longitude, and even worked out some of the mathematics of life insurance (Robinson 2006; Kline 1993).

While it can also be argued that he did not know everything--he seems not to have engaged in a broad study of the life sciences, many areas in the arts and humanities escaped his interest, and he did not work in the realm of Earth and space sciences--his range of knowledge is still inspiring. A close examination of his work shows a focus in physics and medicine. This degree of border crossing may have been responsible for some of his fundamental discoveries about color vision, as he had an intimate understanding of the structure of the eye and the physics of optics and light. For instance, this cross-disciplinary knowledge enabled Young to conclude that the retina had several discrete (rather than infinite) color receptors (Robinson 2006). The marriage of physics and medicine also permitted him to accurately describe the cause and visual implications of astigmatism--something he may not have been able to do if his range of experience was limited to just medicine or physics. It matters little whether or not Young was, in fact, the last man to know everything, but he was most certainly a Renaissance thinker whose knowledge crossed the now-common dividing lines between disciplines.

The disciplines

With the growth of the early universities, we saw the first formal segregation of human knowledge into disciplines. The medieval bachelor's degree required that students learn the "trivium" (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) as preparation for the "quadrivium" (music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy), which together comprised the liberal arts (Abelson 2007; Joseph 2002). For centuries, science grew alongside the arts and humanities at the hands of the natural philosophers (Ronan 1982). In the mid 1800s, the label changed to scientist. With increased specialization, even scientist was replaced with chemist, biologist, geologist, astronomer, and physicist.

As I write this essay, I look out on the beautiful campus of the University of Arkansas and can see Old Main, the stately first building that once housed the university. Peering back through time, one can imagine when members of the art department regularly crossed paths with those in literature; a mathematician would lunch with a biologist; and a chemist and physicist would sit across from each other in the single small library. Now my university, like so many others, has scores of huge buildings, many of which are designed and set aside for the exclusive use of those in a single discipline. As Becher and Trowler (2001) report, the notion of specialization has grown so strong that, at least in higher education, disciplines might best be called "academic tribes and territories" and studied through the lens of the cultural anthropologist as if they were foreign lands and peoples.

In both universities and K-12 schools, students leave one world and enter another as they attend classes in these discipline-specific domains. …

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