PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Dale L. Orth

F21 Class of 2005 Statement

Dale Orth is Professor of Chemistry at Western State College of Colorado.

How are colleagues in different disciplines coming together to reshape the undergraduate STEM learning experience?

At Western State College of Colorado, faculty from many disciplines come together for a variety of reasons. These include interdisciplinary research projects, regular curriculum improvements, course development activities for a summer teacher institute, assessment activities, and other reasons. While the reasons are varied, the outcome often does reshape the undergraduate STEM learning experience.

But what is the current undergraduate STEM learning experience? Is it any different than my own experience about 15 years ago? Should it be? My own experience was at a small, private college where I arrived intent on majoring in chemistry. I did just that (doing summer research and a summer internship along the way) and headed straight for graduate school. Four years later, I was at the front of a college classroom, teaching chemistry. That linear model worked pretty well for me, but it clearly cannot be the only model.

In fact, as a public educator with a responsibility to prepare citizens for the 21st century, such a model (from the role of educator) is inappropriate today. We need to pull together different disciplines to prepare students in any one discipline. An easy example of this at Western is our environmental studies program (ENVS). The ENVS council includes colleagues from biology, communication arts, economics, geography, and recreation. Students take courses in biology, chemistry, geology, sociology, political science, and economics in order to complete their major. As colleagues, we must decide the content and connectedness of such courses.

At the upper-level in ENVS, we often must team teach courses in order to bring the content and connections necessary for a successful course. For example, I have team taught (with a biologist) a course Science, Technology, and the Environment and will be teaching it solo this next Spring. Prerequisites for the course include biology, chemistry, geology, and environmental studies courses. The course is successful because of the contributions from many faculty not directly involved in the course. This can take the form of guest lectures, or even just hallway conversations of how a particular topic is covered in a particular field. It is an opportunity for students to bring ideas together. Course topics such as waste treatment and renewable energy need information from more than one discipline to be understood.

Fortunately, the lessons I have learned from colleagues in teaching such a course are able to infiltrate other courses I teach. Thus chemistry majors (unconnected officially to the ENVS program) profit from colleague collaboration of which they may not even be aware. Such changes are also a boon to the many biology majors in my chemistry courses. Such collaboration provides me both new examples and a new approach.

In the case of interdisciplinary research involving students, professors can often provide a model to the students. I am currently working on a project with a physicist at our college. He clearly has a different skill set than I. The student working with us can realize that he may already know more chemistry than a PhD physicist. Often we are able to discuss the same problem taking turns using the language of physics and the language of chemistry. As is so often the case, in translating, we come to understand the topic more richly.

I think we are doing this relatively well at Western State. While the interactions between disciplines are not always formal, they are usually obvious to students. It is easier for students to succeed if they never realize the boundaries between disciplines existed, instead of having to break them down. By showing students a landscape without boundaries between disciplines, we are providing a richer learning experience for them. Of course, it is also exciting and rewarding for the colleagues to continue their own learning!