Peer Review

Creating Interdisciplinary Science Programs: Purposes, Progress, Potholes

The founding faculty of the Human Biology Program on Indiana University’s flagship Bloomington campus described one of their most important roles in this interdisciplinary science program as “infecting others.” Akin to the epidemic metaphor employed by Malcom Gladwell (2000) in The Tipping Point, the phrase describes how faculty and students viewed themselves as contagious vectors of positive change and inspired a multidisciplinary community to engage in the difficult intellectual work of building and sustaining a unique interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program in the life sciences.

In 2003–04 Indiana University positioned itself to facilitate and offer leadership in research and education for the state’s Life Sciences Initiative. At the same time, the provost created a competitive funding program, Commitment to Excellence, to provide funds for new programs that integrated the research and teaching missions of the university. A proposal for a comprehensive program in human biology was funded under this initiative, supplying the stimulus for the development of an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program in human biology that would serve the state by attracting, educating, and retaining a life sciences workforce.

A campus conversation was launched with the support of university administration, bringing faculty and students together to explore the meaning of an interdisciplinary program in human biology for the Indiana University Bloomington [IUB] campus. A shared vision began to emerge, leading to a push to mobilize an interdisciplinary learning community.

Building and Sustaining an Interdisciplinary Program

The first step in creating interdisciplinary programs is to mobilize a campus community through intentionally structured conversations that challenge faculty and student thinking about educational paradigms that facilitate connections across disciplines. To mobilize the IUB campus, internal and external teaching and learning scholars and interdisciplinary experts were invited to speak with faculty and students and help inform decisions concerning curricular structure, pedagogy, and content for the interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program in human biology.

It was determined that to be truly interdisciplinary, the curriculum must have a place for integration, a core-course series that spans the four-year degree, and it must respect what we know about college student development. To maximize the vast disciplinary expertise of the faculty, the degree program should draw from existing courses and group them in ways that offer unique multidisciplinary perspectives. Foundation courses common to all areas of concentration provide essential quantitative and life science skills and content.

Importantly, while the campus conversation had enhanced understanding of interdisciplinarity within a science context and had achieved the aim of fostering enthusiasm for integrating the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities across the curriculum, it was unable to break down all barriers. Conscientious efforts to reach out to departments, schools, and other units on campus were required and remain central to sustaining this program. Program events—such hosting as a weekly coffee hour and a brown bag informal speaker series, and cosponsoring invited speakers for departmental seminars—have drawn faculty and students into the interdisciplinary community.

Students were eager to help shape the proposed degree program. They formed a student advisory group during the early campus conversations and this group would go on to become the student government within the program, which involved electing officers, ratifying a constitution, and electing a student member to the program’s advisory committee. The students assumed a leadership role in the program, convening student call-outs, organizing movie nights, and coordinating unique learning opportunities for students and faculty. Students also serve as peer instructors in the program’s core courses and mentors and resident experts in area schools through their outreach activities.

Within faculty discipline and student major reside elements of identity and ownership that are nurtured in part by deep traditions and understandings and that extend well beyond the university. Successfully fostering a shared vision of integrated disciplines and mobilizing faculty and students requires uncommon intentionality, communication, and community building with support from all levels of university leadership.

During the second step, the implementation phase, the program intentionally aligned its approach to teaching and learning with the inquiry habits of mind of its faculty, harmonizing its mission with the mission of the institution. At the first Human Biology Summer Institute, faculty examined active and collaborative learning pedagogies and explored a constructivist-developmental approach for supporting transformative learning. This process yielded the decision to employ a team-based and case/problem-based pedagogy with content organized in three modules, referred to as the ‘signature pedagogy’ of the program’s core. To effectively integrate disciplinary perspectives, it was decided that the core courses would each be taught by two faculty from disparate disciplines.

Baxter Magolda’s (1999) work on self-authorship served as the principal guidepost for developing learning goals for the interdisciplinary core curriculum, while Perry’s (1998) intellectual and ethical development scheme steered the group’s work on student learning outcomes. The use of authentic assessment strategies, such as scientific poster sessions and peer review, were implemented into core course curricula, with the intention of engaging students in the environments and processes inherent to science. All work on learning goals and teaching practices was guided by a backward design approach (Wiggins and McTighe 2000) and the question, “What do we want students to know and be able to do as a consequence of their experiences in human biology?” This approach, coupled with an understanding of where to look for scholarly literature on teaching and learning in the future and how to access campus resources to assist with teaching, has inspired faculty to continue to ask questions about their students’ learning and to design classroom assessments with the dual purpose of facilitating and providing understanding of student learning. Faculty presented their curricular development work, “Putting Theory and Research into Practice in the Development of an Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Major in Human Biology,” at the second annual International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference in Vancouver, British Columbia (Schlegel, Halloran, McLeod, et al. 2005).

Faculty decided that students’ capacities for connecting their learning in the core curriculum with their areas of concentration and their academic learning with their lives outside academia would be best supported by longitudinal student e-portfolios. The program’s electronic portfolio became the work of the program’s second faculty cohort and summer institute. Seven competencies (scientific reasoning and inquiry, collaborative problem-solving, integrative synthesis, communication, personal and professional identity, ethical reasoning and action, and civic engagement) were delineated using a matrix model with increasing expectations for integration and student development with each year of advancement.

These competencies were informed by the program learning goals, the scholarly work used in the development of the program, course and portfolio pilots, and the work of national leaders in higher education and science education, including but not limited to AAC&U’s LEAP and VALUE initiatives, National Research Council, National Science Foundation, and the work of campuses participating in the Keck/PKAL Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning (FIDL) Project ( Students were described as “disciplinary explorers” and novice thinkers in their first year, moving to multidisciplinary investigators in year two, interdisciplinary critics in year three, and expert thinkers and “extradisciplinary” advocates in year four. The audience for the e-portfolio shifts with each year and a capstone e-portfolio course guides students in a reflective process that leads to a professional portfolio and a reflective retrospective essay that utilizes the degree program competencies as its frame.

Supporting faculty from diverse disciplines in their understanding of theoretical foundations for teaching and learning and engaging them in evidence-based practices resulted in a shift in their thinking about teaching and learning. In addition, engaging faculty in asking questions about their students’ learning and seeking evidence to answer these questions parallels what they do naturally as scholars and has an essential place in fostering best practices, especially when working across disciplinary boundaries. Providing seamless ways for faculty to connect their disciplinary scholarship and habits of mind with their interdisciplinary teaching may help to facilitate shifts in campus teaching culture and reward structure. Faculty teaching scholarship is a part of the culture of the program and is supported by a larger teaching and learning community that is helping to grow evidence-based practices. As the campus struggles with ways of understanding student learning and its relationship to institution-wide curricular changes and innovations at the school, department, and course level, it is increasingly looking to faculty scholarship of teaching to help with its assessment of student learning. Ernest Boyer (1990) wrote, “The degree to which this push for better education is achieved will be determined, in large measure, by the way scholarship is defined and, ultimately, rewarded.”

Partnerships and collaborations are a vital part of interdisciplinary endeavors. The campus instructional support center was an essential partner in the development, implementation, and assessment of the program’s curriculum. Partnerships with the School of Education were instrumental in programmatic inquiry and assessment and worked simultaneously to bridge the language differences associated with interdisciplinary student learning in different educational settings. Significant work that has resulted from one of these partnerships is described in a recent book chapter (Eastwood, Schlegel, and Cook 2011).

As part of her doctoral dissertation research, Eastwood examined how learning outcomes and key learning experiences differed between human biology majors and biology majors. Although no differences in content knowledge as determined by the Biology Concept Inventory (Klymkowsky and Garvin-Doxas 2008) were found between disciplinary and interdisciplinary life science majors, the study revealed that the blending of social and biological perspectives within the context of authentic problems and issues in an interdisciplinary program enhanced students’ reasoning in novel situations and fostered broader consideration of multiple perspectives when seeking solutions to complex problems. When thinking about new problems, human biology majors frequently referenced case studies they had encountered in their core courses. For these students, situating science within issues, problems, and diverse disciplinary contexts provided a larger repertoire from which to reason.

Experimentation is a natural part of the life cycle of any classroom, course, or curriculum and inherent to faculty work and identity, especially at a research university. Sharing with faculty the evidence for student learning within different learning environments and populations of students provided them with an evidence-based approach to understanding their students’ learning and guided their thinking about how best to implement courses and curricula.

The third and final step in creating interdisciplinary programs is institutionalization, which is by far the most difficult step. The interdisciplinary program in human biology experienced gracious intellectual space and resounding administrative support during its development because it intentionally aligned its mission with the strategic directions of the institution and the state. The program faculty recognized that efforts at all three stages of building and sustaining an interdisciplinary program would benefit from knowledge sharing with other institutions. The opportunity to talk about different approaches and hear the experiences of other PKAL teams in the Keck project on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning struggled with the same question—“What is the utility of interdisciplinary programs for our campus and what structures best serve this mission?”—was pivotal in advancing institutionalization of the program.

The faculty crafted governing policies and procedures and sought ways to ensure equitable distribution of leadership across all disciplines contributing to the program. Establishing policies to govern faculty teaching in the program’s core curriculum remained elusive in part because initially teaching had been generously funded by the competitive campus award. Later, the variance in departmental cultures within the college and changes in administration would hamper the program’s efforts to establish memorandums of agreement and institutionalize procedures for teaching in the program. The program’s history has been to rely upon the goodwill of faculty and departments, which is clearly not a sustainable model.

Through formal and informal bridges, the program connected with campus units and mission. Internal and external grant funding was sought for program implementation and assessment, and when appropriate faculty research grants made connections to the program. Faculty and student connections with the K–12 community encouraged recruitment and provided expertise for classroom and outreach activities. Faculty service on myriad campus committees and involvement in college and campus governance helped to inform program decisions and strategic use of resources. Space for the program had been ad hoc from the beginning, and the program’s permanent location was in constant flux. The program was able to secure unique space in the heart of campus as a direct consequence of the program’s commitment to building bridges and connections.

In May 2009, the program graduated its first class, a class composed of 84 percent women and 21 percent underrepresented minorities in science. Enhancing diversity is one of four strategic directions for the campus and the program directly supports this goal by retaining a high minority (14.4 percent) enrollment and enrolling unusually high numbers of women (74 percent), especially when compared with other science majors in the college. The issue of underrepresentation within STEM fields for women and racial/ethnic minority students has become a national concern for our colleges and universities (Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline 2010). Studies have found that strengthening academic support and encouraging social activities for students, especially at the departmental level, fosters a sense of belonging and positively influences retention of undergraduate underrepresented students. The culture of the interdisciplinary program in human biology is one that engages community in the support of learning and encourages student leadership, mentorship, and ownership within the program and through these best practices has cultivated a diverse and robust interdisciplinary science learning community.

Gaining understanding and support for the program from campus leaders was challenged by an unusual turnover in campus leadership that paralleled the program’s development. Leadership turned over multiple times at all levels—president, provost, and college dean—by the time the program graduated its first class. Later in that same year the program would experience what Klein (2010) calls, “a perfect storm of political, ideological, academic, and economic arguments, even in the face of counterevidence,” forcing changes in program structure and leadership. The program persists with its faculty working to sustain the learner-centered, evidence-based, and community-building best practices; however, it is again facing a new administration and on the heels of adopting significant curricular changes mandated by the previous administration.

We must keep in mind that our students are the true change agents; consequently, how we educate them will be as important as what we teach them, for both will guide how they engage with society. Interdisciplinary programs past and present battle the necessity for employing nontraditional structures to institutionalize their mission. The Human Biology Program experience provides some insights for facilitating learner-centered, evidence-based, and community-minded practices for mobilizing, implementing, and institutionalizing an interdisciplinary STEM program.

What’s Next

Lastly, this story offers some cautions for sustaining interdisciplinary STEM programs. The interdisciplinary program in human biology has undergone significant change within the past year that can be best understood in the context of what Henry (2005) describes as “disciplinary hegemony.” Changes to the program, and in particular its core curriculum, have occurred as a result of cuts to the program budget, reduced resources for faculty, and removal of class size caps. Confidence in the core curriculum was shaken by claims that the interdisciplinary core courses were shallow and traded rigor for confusing learning objectives that appeared to be more skill than content driven and furthermore, they were costly because of the team teaching and small class sizes. The number of core courses was reduced from four to three and faculty-led seminars have been replaced by graduate student-led discussion sections. The constraints of disciplinary structures, cultures and traditions are an inherent challenge to all forms of interdisciplinary work.

Strong leadership is essential for the persistence of interdisciplinary STEM teaching and learning in higher education. Equally important is the distribution of interdisciplinary program leadership and curricular ownership among a critical mass of diverse disciplinary faculty and students so that the intrinsic culture of experimentation, innovation, and responsiveness to change can continue to be encouraged and mentored.


For additional recommendations and strategies on creating interdisciplinary programs, see the PKAL report, What Works in Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning in Science and Mathematics.


Baxter Magolda, M. 1999. Creating contexts for learning and self-authorship: constructive-developmental pedagogy. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Boyer E. L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation.

Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline. 2010. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Eastwood, J. L., W. M. Schlegel, and K. L. Cook. 2011. “Effects of an Interdisciplinary Program on Students’ Reasoning with Socioscientific Issues and Perceptions of Their College Experience.” In Socio-scientific Issues in Science Classrooms: Teaching, Learning and Research, edited by T. D. Sadler, 89–126. New York, NY: Springer.

Gladwell, M. 2000. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.

Henry, S. 2005. Disciplinary Hegemony Meets Interdisciplinary Ascendancy: Can Interdisciplinary/Integrative Studies Survive, and If So, How? Issue in Integrative Studies 23: 1–37.

Klein, J. T. 2010. Creating Interdisciplinary Campus Cultures: A Model for Strength and Sustainability. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Klymkowsky, M. W., and K. Garvin-Doxas. 2008. Recognizing Student Misconceptions through Ed’s Tools and the Biology Concept Inventory. PLoS Biology 6: 14–17.

McTighe, J., and Wiggins, G. 1999. The Understanding by Design Handbook. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Perry, W. G. 1998. Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schlegel, W. M., V. Halloran, F. Kaestle, J. D. Mcleod, J. A. Near, P. L. Quirk, G. Strange, M. J. Wade, R. and Veatch-Peterson, R. 2005. Putting Theory and Research into Practice in the Development of an Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Major in Human Biology. International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Annual Conference, Vancouver, BC.

Whitney M. Schlegel is an associate professor of biology and founding director of the Human Biology Program at the Indiana University Bloomington.

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