Interdisciplinary Engineering Education: Difficult, but not Impossible

Interdisciplinarity is now all the buzz within engineering schools. First, it was the research funding bodies demanding interdisciplinary research. Now it is industry, governments and engineering professional institutions demanding interdisciplinary education. Interdisciplinary research is hugely challenging, not least because the current university system remains clustered around individual disciplines, and mono-disciplinarity remains the modus operandi in day-to-day academic practice.  Interdisciplinary engineering education raises the challenges faced by engineering schools even further.

There are two main reasons for this state of affairs. The first reason is this: academic training and support structures designed to prepare engineering academics for 21st century higher education practices remain in short supply. The second reason is the prevailing belief that academics do not really need any pedagogic training at all.

The purpose of this blog piece is two-fold. First, it is to answer the question from the individual engineering academic: “What is interdisciplinary education, and how can I get started?” Second, it is to answer the question from directors of education: “How do we develop a truly interdisciplinary engineering curriculum?”

Why engineering education has to become interdisciplinary?

Engineers routinely deal with interdisciplinarity in their practice. For instance, the design of an everyday product like a motor vehicle requires the integration of knowledge and skills from disparate disciplines such as mechanical, electronic and computer engineering, battery technology and energy systems, environmental and sustainability engineering, and ergonomics. As Meyers and Ernst (1995) observed over thirty years ago, engineers have had to become interdisciplinary because their job requires it. Hence, for engineering, interdisciplinarity is not, and has never been an option. It is only that engineering education has so far managed to get away without incorporating interdisciplinarity for so long. However, as so many engineering education researchers have observed, this head-in-the-sand approach is no longer tenable in the 21st century.

As many writers have pointed out, 21st-century engineers have to adopt interdisciplinary approaches to deal with the critical challenges that they have to resolve. It is no longer possible for any one discipline to address all the problems, issues, or questions associated with these challenges single-handedly. Mahmud (2018) attributes the complexity of such challenges partly to the convergence of distinct technologies originating from different sectors, such as the energy, transportation, health and telecommunication sectors. According to Mahmud, this convergence has given rise to increasingly interdependent, complex socio-technical systems that demand interdisciplinary expertise.  Engineering education has to step up and impart interdisciplinary skills to its graduates.

What is interdisciplinary education?

Currently, disciplines educate and equip students with the disciplinary knowledge and skills they need to address and solve problems in their specific discipline-oriented areas of expertise. For instance, following graduation, a telecom engineering graduate  would concentrate on resolving telecom problems; a mechanical engineer on solving mechanical engineering problem, and a chemical engineer on solving chemical engineering problems. If a problem simultaneously requires the resolution of mechanical, chemical and telecom problems, a standard approach would be to bring together individuals with these skills to form a multidisciplinary team.  In this case, the chemical engineer would focus on the chemical engineering aspects of the problem; the mechanical engineer would focus on the mechanical aspects, whilst the telecom engineer would focus on issues relating to telecommunications. This is the standard multidisciplinary approach.

For complex, interdependent systems, however, the team would need to integrate their disciplinary skills, knowledge, experience and insights, and synthesise this into a shared body of knowledge that enables them to gain a more indepth understanding of the problem at hand. This process requires the individual team members to learn from each other, to shed off discipline-based misconceptions, and to develop a new understanding and awareness of the problem at hand based on a synthesis of knowledge from the individual disciplines. As  Kuldell (2007)  suggests, this process requires the whole team to fully embrace this newly synthesised body of knowledge as the basis for understanding and tackling the problem, together with all the challenges and uncertainties inherent in this new body of knowledge. This is in contrast to maintaining multidisciplinary viewpoints that persist in viewing the subject as an amalgam of their individual disciplinary knowledge. This approach is termed interdisciplinarity, and is best defined as follows:

 Interdisciplinarity is a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession… [It] draws upon disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective (Newell, 1998; p.393-4).

So what then is interdisciplinary education? It is an educational process whereby learners draw from two or more disciplines to advance their understanding of a subject or a problem beyond what is achievable from any single discipline (Mahmud, 2018). In so doing, the learners integrate and develop information, concepts, methodologies and procedures from  the individual disciplines to gain new knowledge, understanding and skills so as to be able to explain or solve problems (Holley, 2017). This form of learning is necessarily active, self-directed learning.

What factors should you consider when implementing an interdisciplinary curriculum?

The first thing to remember when planning an interdisciplinary engineering curriculum is this:  University teaching is organised around the disciplines, and disciplines have different ways of disseminating, organising and thinking about the knowledge that underpins them. Because of this, individual disciplines have different approaches to teaching, and this applies to individual disciplines within engineering as well. Entwistle (2009) sums up this dilemma as follows:

There is a logic that holds together the various strands of a discipline or topic area, and there is a logical connection between the intellectual demands of the subject and how best to teach it.

The outcome of this is that academic staff engaging in interdisciplinary teaching are susceptible to reverting to their normal discipline-based teaching. Hence, if close attention is not paid to the process of designing and implementing the interdisciplinary curriculum, students on the receiving end of the curriculum will perceive their learning as a disparate, disjointed set of modules drawn from different disciplines (Foley, 2016). At a minimum, therefore, to be successful, an interdisciplinary curriculum should endeavour to create a cohesive, integrated approach that both staff and students can invest in (Kuldell, 2007).

A second consideration is that most engineering programmes are offered at undergraduate level. At this level, students mostly view themselves through the lens of their individual disciplines. They have come to university to specialise in their particular discipline, and anything other than their discipline is likely to demotivate them. Hence, the primary pursuit of students at this level is the mastery of their discipline’s approach to problem solving. How then can one can one resolve this dilemma?

Holley (2017) suggests that to be successful, an interdisciplinary curriculum should provide learning environments that allow students and academic staff from different disciplinary backgrounds to engage in scholarly conversations around issues of shared interest and importance, while also exploring connections between their majors and other sources of knowledge and experience. Within the classroom, adopting an overarching topic, theme, or problem can help to establish bridges of shared understanding between the different disciplines. With regard to pedagogy, adopting a research-based, problem solving approach may be the best approach to fostering interdisciplinarity (Kuldell, 2007).

Attention to the development of an interdisciplinary curriculum should  also focus on out-of-class activities. Lattuca et al. (2017) suggest that students should be encouraged to participate in co-curricular activities and experiences that are inherently interdisciplinary. For instance, in their study of students perceptions of interdisciplinary learning,  Lattuca et al. (2017) observed that there was a positive correlation between students perceptions of interdisciplinary learning and their participation in non-engineering clubs and activities, study abroad, and humanitarian engineering projects. This suggests that providing opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary activities both within and outside the classroom helps to provide a supportive environment in which students can develop their interdisciplinary skills organically.

Concluding remarks

This overview does suggest that achieving interdisciplinary education is difficult. Whilst this is true, achieving success is not beyond the realms of possibility. What this means is that implementing interdisciplinary education requires commitment and endeavour from both senior management and academic staff. To date, there is no proven cookbook approach to implementing interdisciplinary education within engineering. However, the topic is currently receiving considerable attention from engineering education researchers. This means that increasingly, we are now able to identify evidence-based approaches that can help us in our endeavours to implement interdisciplinarity within engineering education.

REFERENCES

ENTWISTLE, N. 2009. Teaching for understanding at university: Deep approaches and distinctive ways of thinking, Palgrave Macmillan.

FOLEY, G. 2016. Reflections on interdisciplinarity and teaching chemical engineering on an interdisciplinary degree programme in biotechnology. Education for Chemical Engineers, 14, 35-42.

HOLLEY, K. 2017. Interdisciplinary curriculum and learning in higher education. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.

KULDELL, N. 2007. Authentic teaching and learning through synthetic biology. Journal of Biological Engineering, 1, 8.

LATTUCA, L. R., KNIGHT, D. B., RO, H. K. & NOVOSELICH, B. J. 2017. Supporting the development of Engineers’ interdisciplinary competence. Journal of Engineering Education, 106, 71-97.

MAHMUD, M. N. 2018. Interdisciplinary Learning in Engineering Practice: An Exploratory Multi-case Study of Engineering for the Life Sciences Projects. University of Cambridge.

MEYERS, C. W. & ERNST, E. W. 1995. Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change: Report of an NSF Workshop on Engineering Education, Division of Undergraduate Education, Directorate for Education and Human ….

NEWELL, W. H. 1998. Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature, College Entrance Examination Board.

 

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