Interdisciplinarity is a “knowledge view and curriculum approach that consciously applies methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic, or experience” (Jacobs, 1989). In undergraduate teaching laboratories, interdisciplinary approaches teach students how to draw from diverse scientific disciplines, methodologies, and techniques to comprehensively address complex problems. This approach has high applicability to real-world challenges. In many students’ graduate research destinations, prior interdisciplinary training facilitates multifaceted experimental design, leveraging of complementary methodologies, effective collaboration, contextualization of results, and communication of findings to diverse audiences. Similarly, in workplaces and professional training programs, an interdisciplinary background allows individuals to approach complex problems from multiple viewpoints. This not only helps minimize naïve realism, but actively facilitates an intersectional approach (Gehlbach et al., 2012). Here, we provide a dual perspective on our motivations for and lessons learned when pursuing interdisciplinary undergraduate biomedical laboratory education – as seen through the eyes of a student (author Mili Shah, a recent Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences graduate) and an educator (author Nicolle Domnik, an assistant professor who actively works to design interdisciplinarity into her teaching).
While interdisciplinary education has recently been the subject of increasing interest, many of the fundamental principles guiding interdisciplinary education aren’t new. Concepts of interdisciplinarity date to Ancient Greece, and the term “interdisciplinary education” was first employed in 1933 by the Social Science Research Council (Markauskaite, 2016). More recently, the strengths of interdisciplinary laboratory education (ILE), facilitated by technological advances, have increasingly led to diverse programs centering interdisciplinarity within their curricula (Morgado et al., 2018; TeachThought, 2022). The benefits of ILE are manifold, with students contextualizing problems from various viewpoints and pursuing experiential learning, skills that transcend graduation (Ashby & Exter, 2018). Ms. Shah notes that her ILE has been invaluable beyond her academics, providing her with practical skills like adaptability, professionalism, and communication. Such skills are best fostered through practice, and contextual and embodied learning (e.g., hands-on simulations, experiments, and presentations) are a major focus of interdisciplinary education (Lattuca, 2016). Dr. Domnik notes that the desire for her students to have strong conversancy and subsequent success in a variety of fields has been a strong motivator for pursuing interdisciplinary approaches.
Much as ILE students are provided opportunities for radical collaboration with peers and mentors, so too must faculty developing interdisciplinary curricula actively grow and cultivate collaborations (Maier et al., 2021; Misiewicz, n.d.; Tamm and Luyet 2004). Dr. Domnik notes that building a framework for drawing from diverse disciplines is a strong motivator for breaking barriers: in pursuit of the knowledge needed to successfully design and implement interdisciplinary courses, she is required to collaborate with a greater diversity of experts more frequently than when developing content contained within a single discipline. This invariably challenges her to learn new things and leads to marked growth in her own knowledge and skills. Active and iterative engagement of instructors with peers, researchers, and community partners with complementary backgrounds additionally permits diversification of curriculum content. IMS graduate Ms. Shah appreciated the breadth of content and experiences offered by her ILE in contrast with the more focused education of her peers, as it enabled her to interact with individuals of various educational, cultural, social, and political backgrounds. She sees this as having translated to not only knowledge and skill development, but also perspective and maturity.
While ILE holds many benefits, it isn’t without challenges. This includes cultivating a community of instructors and mentors with meaningful understanding and expertise spanning varied disciplines and the structural support to leverage individuals with complementary expertise within organizations. Drawing from numerous individuals’ expertise requires courses to be continuously monitored to ensure students are provided with consistently strong experiences (Perry & Stewart, 2005). The increasing massification of higher education further poses significant logistic and financial challenges, as the provision of meaningful mentorship and support, and access to equipment, reagents, and innovative learning spaces, are challenged with growing class sizes (Mulder, 2012). This necessitates creative approaches to high-quality educational delivery. A further challenge includes student perceptions of interdisciplinarity. In the authors’ experiences, undergraduate students have greater comfort and conversancy describing and identifying “traditional” disciplines; however, exposure to interdisciplinarity is more nuanced. If students cannot identify how interdisciplinarity manifests, they are less equipped to recognize its utility and potential and feel less confident in approaching problems from an interdisciplinary perspective (Self et al., 2018). A final challenge exists in balancing generalizability and specialization. While a main benefit of interdisciplinarity education is undoubtedly students’ exposure to and development of skill in multiple disciplines, one must remain cognizant that this breadth may come at the expense of specialization if care is not taken to foster deep learning in critical areas, as time and focus are required to gain aptitude and expertise within multiple disciplines (Self et al., 2018).
A case study in interdisciplinarity
Recently, Dr. Domnik collaboratively (see Acknowledgements) redeveloped a third-year undergraduate laboratory course, expanding a molecular biology-focused methods course into a course spanning “micro to macro” methods (molecular biology to human physiology). Ms. Shah took an early iteration of this new course, which had to be offered online in winter 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but was offered in a predominantly on-campus format in 2021-2022. Ms. Shah recalls that this course taught her theoretical knowledge and practical applications of many laboratory techniques. It provided the opportunity to not only learn the details of these methods in isolation, but also provided context on how these methods could be used together to answer a scientific question. The course was also her first exposure to an intentionally interdisciplinary curriculum, which with the COVID-19 pandemic was enhanced through expert guest lecturers and corresponding reflective exercises as well as remote-amenable data analysis sessions. She notes that the quality and engagement of instructors within her upper-year interdisciplinary courses was instrumental to her experience, as the positive classroom environments that they created, which valued concept connections, scientific inquiry, teamwork, and collaboration, provided the freedom to try, grow, and ultimately succeed. It was additionally valuable to Ms. Shah that her instructors could clearly articulate the definition of interdisciplinarity and point out its presence in theoretical and practical scientific contexts, as this made it possible to learn to identify it, appreciate the value it brings, and start incorporating it into her own work.
Conclusion and future directions
Interdisciplinary teaching in post-secondary laboratory courses has numerous benefits to both students and faculty. It provides not only theoretical knowledge, but an integrative application of skills learned while requiring the iterative cultivation of new collaborations. This results in a student body well-poised to succeed in a variety of settings post-graduation. We argue that an interdisciplinary approach is worth considering by all educational providers wanting to provide their students with a job-relevant, rigorous, and critical enquiry-based training experience. By embracing the interconnectedness of teaching and research, ILE provides not only knowledge of real-world applications, but opportunities for radical collaboration and the development of interpersonal skills. There is much potential for growth in interdisciplinary education. We owe it to our students to invest in ensuring it occurs.
The authors extend grateful thanks to Drs. Nicole Campbell and Sarah McLean for their generously shared experiences and support, many fruitful conversations on weaving interdisciplinarity into curriculum, their insight and efforts in redesigning MEDSCIEN3900E, and for their indefatigable dedication to their students.
An assistant professor at Queen’s University (formerly Western University), Nicolle Domnik actively incorporates interdisciplinarity in her teaching and loves sharing her passion for cardiorespiratory (patho)physiology with her students. When not in the classroom or lab, she can be found experimenting in the kitchen, making music, or enjoying the great outdoors.
A recent Western University Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences graduate, Mili Shah is passionate about individual and public health and strongly believes in health advocacy. You can always find her learning about different ways to help others! In her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, reading, and travelling.
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