The Challenge Of Teaching Interdisciplinary Thinking

Professor teaching computational biology

Biology professor Eliot Bush teaches CS 5 Green, an introductory computer science course that integrates biological questions.Harvey Mudd College

The challenges facing the world today are more complex than ever, and their solutions are often beyond the scope of any one academic field. The innovations and new technologies we need are increasingly being developed by people from different academic disciplines who come together to collaborate and work in interdisciplinary teams.

Those of us who work in higher education need to teach our students to think across disciplines and work effectively as members of diverse teams. Many institutions now offer majors in cross-disciplinary fields—such as computational biology or environmental policy—and also are opening new interdisciplinary institutes and centers, organized not around departments but around themes such as sustainability, integrative health, digital humanities, nanoscience and genomic research. These interdisciplinary majors and research centers are accelerating scientific discovery on topics ranging from nuclear technologies to small prosthetics to imaging science.

Professor working with students

Computer science professor Yi-Chieh (Jessica) Wu researches evolutionary models and algorithms for reconstructing gene histories across multiple species.Harvey Mudd College

At Harvey Mudd, we have worked to infuse interdisciplinary thinking across our curriculum from the first to the final semester. We require students to take courses in all branches of the sciences in their first three semesters, as well as in the humanities, social sciences and the arts, and we focus their work on problem-solving at the intersections of these fields. We continue to expand our interdisciplinary majors and have established centers to stimulate and support interdisciplinary learning, such as our Hixon Center for Environmental Sustainability.

Harvey Mudd was one of the first colleges and universities to offer a mathematical and computational biology major, and we continue to innovate our teaching in this growing interdisciplinary field that is quickly becoming an integral component of biological research.