Interdisciplinary Teaching at York

14 October 2019

Speakers: Dr Glenn Hurst (Chemistry), Professor Roddy Vann (Physics), Dr Simon Sweeney (Management) and Dr Barry Lee (Philosophy)

Workshop Summary

On 14 October Dr Glenn Hurst (Chemistry), Professor Roddy Vann (Physics), Dr Simon Sweeney (Management) and Dr Barry Lee (Philosophy) discussed interdisciplinary learning and teaching at York. All four highlighted staff and student interest in interdisciplinary teaching as well as the practical and institutional challenges of running interdisciplinary programmes.

Glenn Hurst contextualised the rationale for interdisciplinary teaching in terms of the complex challenges humanity faces that require interdisciplinary solutions, encapsulated by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He provided a comprehensive overview of different approaches to interdisciplinary teaching to move students from a fragmented and reductionist knowledge of subject matter to a more integrated and lateral understanding of concepts, resulting in deeper learning. It was noted, however, that there is not much in pedagogic literature on how to do this successfully. Glenn explained how interdisciplinary teaching has been developed in the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence by integrating systems thinking into teaching as a way of enabling students to examine and visualise systems, system level phenomena, the interdependence of components in dynamic systems and embed active learning.

Roddy Vann introduced the workshop to the School of Natural Sciences and its portfolio of interdisciplinary degrees designed to develop the cross-disciplinary skills students will need for a career in modern science. The degree programmes are based on carefully chosen pathways that involve contributions from Archaeology Biology, Chemistry, Electronics, Environment & Geography, Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics and Psychology. Some of the benefits and challenges for students taking cross-disciplinary teaching programmes were discussed, as well as the institutional difficulties of working in a University system in which teaching programmes are based around departments and faculties rather than multi-department and faculty provision.

Simon Sweeney discussed TYMS’ experience with the core MA module on International Political Economy and Business, which is also an option for the MSc Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management. He reflected on the resistance from students to a more interdisciplinary approach in part due to insufficient background knowledge that led to poor results in module assessment and participation. Steps were taken to address the issues of limited no prior learning, motivation to learn areas of knowledge from with an interdisciplinary curriculum that students did not see as relevant to their degree, and critical engagement with an interdisciplinary approach. This involved a change in the length and format of seminars and assessment. Simon’s conclusion was that interdisciplinary teaching for a module like International Political Economy and Business is challenging and needs very able and flexible students.

Barry Lee concluded the session with an overview of the UTC Working Group on Interdisciplinary and Cross-Faculty Teaching that he leads. He discussed the benefits and challenges of introducing electives to allow students to develop their own interdisciplinary programme. Here, he introduced a range of options, including ‘curated electives’ whereby departments select a limited number of modules for off-programme study that connect in different ways to a department’s own degree programme, and ‘bespoke modules’ designed for a specific interdisciplinary purpose, for example ‘Ethics for Engineers’. At the end of spectrum are full interdisciplinary modules with teachers from multiple departments and/or faculties, and students from across the university to tackle complex issues such as artificial intelligence, climate change, and democracy and disruptive technologies. The core questions are why is interdisciplinary teaching of benefit to students and how can we to integrate it into programmes at York?

Subsequent discussion highlighted the challenges for staff of developing and really investing in interdisciplinary teaching, the experience of institutional obstacles to interdisciplinary teaching, but a recognition of a wide range of benefits for students and staff of interdisciplinary programmes. The workshop looked forward to the interim report of the UTC Working Group to faulty learning and teaching groups in Spring 2020.

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