Interdisciplinary STEM programs are popular at universities, but what about students?

A recent study led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and published in the Journal of Higher Education sheds light on how undergraduate students engage in interdisciplinary learning throughout their college careers and beyond – and how universities should respond to support such learning.

Over the last few decades, the number of interdisciplinary undergraduate programs has increased rapidly, and federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy have responded by creating new funding opportunities for interdisciplinary initiatives.

"However," the authors write, "scarce research has explored how students experience and navigate interdisciplinarity," implying that we have no idea how undergraduate students make sense of their interdisciplinary programs.

The research team decided to study students in UMass Amherst's Integrated Concentration in STEM (iCons) program, a certificate program devoted to solving real-world problems in biomedicine and renewable energy that is open to all STEM and business students.

"No previous study has investigated students' perceptions," says Scott Auerbach, professor of chemistry at UMass Amherst and the Mahoney Family Sponsored executive director of the iCons program. "Our new findings suggest how to design programs that meet the needs of students in a world that requires more interdisciplinary workers to address problems in clean energy, public health, and climate change."

The data was gathered from current and former iCons students at various stages of their university and post-university careers. The study discovered three stages of interdisciplinary work: "choosing" for beginning students, "navigating" for advanced students, and "integrating" for alumni.

"We were very surprised by these findings, especially the discovery of an interdisciplinary stage for beginning students before they have amassed enough learning to be considered competent in their fields," says Genia Bettencourt, lead author of the paper and now a professor of higher and adult education in the Department of Leadership at the University of Memphis.

Another surprise was the "navigating stage" for advanced students, whose progress through their majors can provide foundations for interdisciplinary learning in theory. However, students reported discord between disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies, including scheduling conflicts and cultural clashes, according to the study.

"The navigating stage teaches us that strong advising is critical for the success of an interdisciplinary program," says Ezekiel Kimball, senior author of the study and associate dean for Undergraduate and Teacher Education at the University of Maine at Orono. "And the 'integrating' stage demonstrates that these students realize the full benefits of interdisciplinary training only after they have graduated from college, indicating that maintaining contact with alumni is critical for assessing the broad impacts of interdisciplinary programs."

The Mahoney Family Sponsorship of the UMass iCons Program, as well as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Professors Program, supported the research. The next step will be to look into how teamwork is implemented in an interdisciplinary program in order to identify best practices for training cross-functional collaboration skills.


Ezekiel Kimball, Genia M. Bettencourt, Ryan S. Wells, Scott M. Auerbach, Justin T. Fermann Interdisciplinarity: How STEM Undergraduates Choose, Navigate, and Integrate It in College and Beyond DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2022.2131964 The Journal of Higher Education, 2022; 1 DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2022.2131964


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