Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Interdisciplinary Research

We continue our series of discussions on individual reports captured in the PKAL Report on Reports II, 2006, giving attention to Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, published in 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Used with permission from the National Academy of Sciences

If we were to distill the three or four dominant themes from these reports, certainly the need for conversations and experiences that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries would become visible. Whether seen as multi-, cross-, or interdisciplinary, this NAS report provides a helpful definition:

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice. (page 2)

Insights about opportunities and barriers to shaping interdisciplinary learning environments for students is addressed directly in the report:



  • S-1: Undergraduate students should seek out interdisciplinary experiences, such as courses at the interfaces of traditional disciplines that address basic research problems, interdisciplinary courses that address societal problems, and research experiences that span more than one traditional disciplines.
  • S- 2.: Graduate students should explore ways to broaden their experience by gaining “requisite” knowledge in one or more fields, in addition to their primary field.

From the report:

"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.... 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. In the committee's survey, the top recommendations to students were to:
  • cross boundaries between disciplines (25 percent)
  • take a broad range of courses (23.4 percent)
  • develop a solid background in one discipline (12 percent)
Respondents overwhelmingly recommended that educators incorporate interdisciplinary concepts in course curricula. 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, such as engineering, is a curriculum so packed with required courses that it is difficult to take electives or concentrations in disciplines outside the major." (pages 62-3)