The U.S. higher education system has been dominant in the world for over eight decades. An important reason is that education and research are inextricably intertwined at U.S. universities. Interdisciplinary research should be accompanied now by the development of educational programs that train engineers and scientists who are easily able to cross disciplinary boundaries. Such programs are important because success in fundamental interdisciplinary research and its translation into commercial products will not be possible without such a pool of scientists and engineers. A knowledge-based economy will be important for the future in the United States, and interdisciplinary education will be one of the pillars supporting this enterprise.
Recommendation 2: University physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, mathematics, and engineering departments and medical schools should jointly examine their curricula, identifying ways to prepare scientists and engineers for research at the intersection of the physical sciences, engineering, and the life sciences. The educational programs being created should be evaluated from a wide range of viewpoints, including input from leaders in industry and at the national laboratories.
Efforts to educate students on topics in multiple disciplines are currently under way, and they are based on disparate philosophies. One extreme is to have a discipline-free education that exposes a student to a wide variety of subjects that are of current societal relevance and of interest to that student. This approach could produce graduates who have no in-depth knowledge of any particular area of science or engineering. Such a deficiency could be problematic since knowing how to learn a topic in detail will allow us to one day learn another topic in depth. At the other extreme is an in-depth education in a traditional discipline, but with an emphasis on exposure to other fields of inquiry. For example, some universities are experimenting with requiring a secondary major. This necessarily means fewer courses in the primary major, which impedes the design of a curriculum that provides both depth in one field and adequate exposure in others. Another recent development is the emergence of educational units (for example, biological engineering departments) that aim to bring together parts of other disciplines. Yet other programs are developing courses based on case studies. Issues related to the balance between breadth and depth of knowledge acquired by students are pertinent for these models as well.
It is too early to assess the strengths and weaknesses of these different models, but planning for such assessments should be initiated soon. An important quality