Saving the world? Interdisciplinary methods? Isn’t this too much to place on the shoulders of our nation’s science teachers, especially as they are inundated with standardized tests that measure little in their students?
But first, what is meant by interdisciplinary science? Interdisciplinary science is when two disciplines come together to broaden the portrait of the concepts being uncovered by their students. For instance, a language arts teacher and science teacher could take Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” and analyze it for both literary and scientific concepts. The science teacher could take the students to the gymnasium and simulate a large pendulum while discussing the major themes of Poe’s work.
Interdisciplinary science also results from two sciences working together. Biochemistry could be argued to be interdisciplinary, steeped in biology and chemistry. Two science teachers working together to examine the complex issue of water pollution could have a chemistry teacher’s students analyzing water quality while a biology teacher has their students examining the impact of pollution on organisms in the water.
Robotics is truly interdisciplinary, with its marriage of science, technology, engineering, and math contained within one enterprise of study. While some students code, others build robots using carefully constructed mathematical calculations. Science is infused with concepts such as friction, torque, and force, while using engineering processes, such as design–redesign–design. Blending the disciplines results in a powerful product involving critical thinking, planning, innovation and creativity.
But why isn’t more interdisciplinary work used in schools? First, time barriers. Having all the science teachers being able to plan and execute an interdisciplinary unit takes coordination, common planning time, and a dedication to the importance of this kind of learning experience. Secondly, interdisciplinary work is often not in the minds of the administrators when the schedule is constructed. We must advocate for ways to get more interdisciplinary events into our curriculum or else it just won’t happen.
I conducted research in Perth, Australia, at a school based entirely on interdisciplinary methods. The unit I saw being implemented was the Olympics. The science teachers focused on biomechanics, physics, the chemical reactions occuring in the body during the various events, and physiological processes in play, while the social studies teachers dealt with the countries participating and focused on issues of politics, economies, and citizenship education.
Their art colleagues had students create flags and papier maché models of athletes in action. Students graphed the data of events and solved problems dealing with the angles of the athletes in motion.
The language arts teachers had students read many different stories from various countries participating in the Olympics, providing a worldview of the countries, their legends, their voices, and the themes existing in the many genres used.
Physical education teachers had the students perform some of the Olympic events. Music teachers focused on specific music created by the nations, and the students reflected on what the music means to the nations in terms of their social communities.
Students’ thoughts regarding this school entailed such comments as “Everything comes together for us”; “We don’t go to math and then science and study something totally different. All the subjects’ come together”; “I’m learning more because there is a flow to what we are studying. A purpose.” These students experienced school as a cohesive place where everything they studied had a purpose and a laser-like focus honing in on one important topic.
In order to make this happen, it took a school-wide effort, buy-in and willingness to execute such a plan. Are we willing to invest this kind of time and energy in even just one unit of study during a school year? Imagine the conversations the students could have in relating the subjects to one another in and outside of classes. Imagine how a school day would all of the sudden make sense to students versus a myriad of disparate topics with no cohesion between them. Imagine a unit of study being so memorable that students, as adults, would remember the subject matter decades later.
The Roadmap, a strategic plan for NIH funding (http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/interdisciplinary/index.asp), describes interdisciplinary research as that in which research efforts look similar to “behavioral scientists, molecular biologists, and mathematicians might combine their research tools, approaches, and technologies to more powerfully solve the puzzles of complex health problems such as pain and obesity.” Climate change, cancer, overpopulation, food deserts, pollution, and other critical topics benefit from individuals engaging in collaborative, interdisciplinary research. To be able to look outside one’s discipline leads to a powerful explosion of ideas, technological advances, and increased knowledge focusing on critical societal issues.
Shouldn’t we be providing such experiences for our science students? Don’t we want them to see the interconnectedness of the natural world around them? Using interdisciplinary approaches can go a long way in accomplishing these goals.