Archeologists teach alongside engineers. Artists collaborate with doctors. Senior citizens and teenagers share in discussion groups.
The Beyond Boundaries interdisciplinary program at Washington University in St. Louis offers first-year students a wide array of experiences: exposure to new concepts and people; opportunities to learn from some of the world’s leading scholars across a spectrum of disciplines; and something a bit less tangible.
“It is just a great deal of fun,” said Tristram Kidder, the Edward S. and Tedi Macias Professor and chair of anthropology in Arts & Sciences.
Education experts have praised to students the academic value of an interdisciplinary education, which breaks down barriers between disciplines for a more holistic experience. Students, however, are not the only ones who benefit, faculty members say. Developing and teaching these courses can also provide unique opportunities to faculty members who choose to look outside of their fields for collaborators.
It’s all in an effort to show first-year students that “solving complex problems requires multiple disciplinary lenses,” said Marion Crain, vice provost and the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law.
“These courses offer faculty a chance to get out of the silo of working alone and of teaching alone in a single discipline,” Crain said.
Courses such as “The Art of Medicine” bring together disciplines that might seem unusual matches. The course is co-taught by Rebecca Messbarger, director of Medical Humanities and professor of Italian, history, art history, performing arts, and women, gender, and sexuality studies, all in Arts & Sciences; and Patricia Olynyk, director of the Graduate School of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and the Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art. Messbarger says in the course video that the course touches “the art of compassion, the art of listening, the art of imaging,” in a class spanning the history of art and science through the ages.
“Gender, Youth and Global Health,” co-taught by Jessica Levy, senior lecturer at the Brown School, and Caline Mattar, an instructor at the School of Medicine, explores the ways gender and gender differences affect different aspects of health, particularly for young people. The course is organized through and sponsored by the Institute for Public Health.
In many ways, however, Kidder’s course titled “Earth’s Future: Causes and Consequences of Climate Change,” is the poster child for the benefits of interdisciplinary education. There’s the scientific aspect of an unstable climate, and there are also political, economic and psychological components. The course, developed and taught by Kidder and Brent Williams, associate professor in engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, brings in faculty speakers from across the department, giving first-year students a broad look at all of these issues.
Kidder is right there with his students, enjoying the process of discovery.
“We get a semester’s worth of brilliant scholars teaching us about different topics and getting their perspectives,” all while watching how they teach, he said. “There’s a pedagogical strategy I can learn while I’m learning from these people about their field of expertise. For me, it’s a lesson in teaching, and it’s a lesson in scholarship.
“I’m an archeologist, I deal with a lot of dead stuff,” Kidder said. “It has been dead, it’s going to continue to be dead … it’s never going to be anything but dead. Interdisciplinary collaboration helps me think about ways to make my research interests contemporary.”
The Beyond Boundaries courses also teach students skills they can use beyond the classroom and brings the outside world to them. “When I’m Sixty-Four: Transforming Your Future” explores the ways in which aging is — and isn’t — considered across a variety of disciplines.