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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research
degrees, or day-to-day interactions in interdisciplinary projects. People whose home departments do not recognize, encourage, and reward such activities may not be willing to make the extra effort required for interdisciplinary activities.
The most interesting observation is that the students are the integrating glue. Graduate students, undergraduates, and postdocs are the ones that go between the laboratories that make things happen.
Harvey Cohen, professor of pediatrics, Stanford School of Medicine and chair, Interdisciplinary Initiatives Program
Undergraduates can have a rich educational experience when they learn about and in more than one discipline, especially when education is complemented by research experience. Students at Brown University have shown a consistent interest in interdisciplinary programs (Figure 4-1). At Columbia University the number of students majoring in interdepartmental or interdisciplinary programs has increased dramatically over the last 10 years (Figure 4-2). Harvard University students are also increasingly interested in interdisciplinary studies: the number of undergraduate joint concentrations in chemistry and physics has risen from 14 to 45 over the last 15 years (see Box 9-2). At Stanford University a multiyear decline in the number of students majoring in earth science was reversed when the major, originally based in the single discipline of geology, was reformulated into the interdisciplinary program “earth systems” (see Figure 8-1).
University policies can facilitate or hinder students’ ability to learn about IDR and to take double majors, take courses in other schools, or custom-design their majors and participate in IDR. For undergraduates to gain deep interdisciplinary insights, they need to work with faculty members who offer expertise both in their home disciplines and in the interdisciplinary process (see Box 4-1). In the committee’s survey, the top recommendations to students were to cross boundaries between disciplines (25 percent), to take a broad range of courses (23.4 percent), but also to develop a solid background in one discipline (12.3 percent). Respondents overwhelmingly recommended that educators incorporate interdisciplinary concepts in course curricula (Figure 4-3). But structural roadblocks can impede faculty in offering the team teaching and co-mentoring that are essential to undergraduate education. Another barrier in some disciplines,