PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Erika Barthelmess

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Erika Barthelmess is Fippinger Assistant Professor of Biology at St. Lawrence University.

There can be no doubt that the practice of doing science is an increasingly interdisciplinary endeavor. For years now, undergraduate life science programs have been creating new majors in areas such as biochemistry and neuroscience, partly in an effort to integrate across scientific sub disciplines and offer students an interdisciplinary approach to learning. However, in our current world of rapid globalization, scientists need greater familiarity not just with a range of science sub disciplines, but also with disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Two questions arise: what does it mean to be “interdisciplinary” and how do we best train students to effectively participate as scientists in a world where disciplinary boundaries are becoming less and less clear?

In my dictionary, the prefix “inter” has two meanings. The first meaning is “between or among.”. The word “discipline” also has several meanings, the most relevant of which is probably “a branch of knowledge or teaching.” Literally, then, to be “interdisciplinary” could mean to be “between branches of knowledge.” And here I raise a red flag. A person could functionally bridge two areas or a person could be stuck in between two areas, a “jack of all trades and master of none”. The challenge of interdisciplinary teaching is to allow a student to develop a solid core knowledge within a particular discipline while at the same time providing that student with opportunities and experience in working on interdisciplinary problems. For a person to be interdisciplinary then means that the person can integrate between different branches of knowledge. Here, the second meaning of “inter” becomes relevant – it means “mutually” or “together”. When we use the term interdisciplinary, we should be indicating a person’s ability to work “together” with persons from other disciplines, each member of the team playing to her or his strengths so that a synergistic sum of the efforts of the team represents so much more than individuals could achieve on their own.

To train a student to function in an interdisciplinary setting has certain challenges. Most practicing scientists were trained within the context of particular disciplines and may themselves lack skill at interdisciplinary work. Student training requires two key elements. First, the student needs adequate background in a focal discipline. Second, the student needs multiple opportunities to work on problems with people with other disciplinary foci. Reaching the first goal is more-or-less straightforward, as discipline-specific, content-based learning is a longstanding academic tradition (though organizations such as PKAL are helping to push the envelope on how even disciplinary teaching is accomplished). Providing the second element to students is more difficult. Faculty need to spend more time talking together, across disciplines, about the work they do. Faculty should consider adopting problem-based learning approaches in helping students learn to function in an interdisciplinary setting. Further, students should be given regular opportunities to do group-work. Finally, we should not forget the true nature of a liberal arts undergraduate education. Knowing a foreign language, for example, might better enable a scientist to best operate in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. In my conservation biology course students are exposed to economics and philosophy as well as to biological principles and techniques. As the world gets smaller, the need for interdisciplinary interaction will require not just a breakdown of walls within science disciplines but also a breakdown of walls between more disparate disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.

Definitions were taken from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, 1975, published by the American Heritage Publishing Company.