Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

Title: An Interdisciplinary Lesson Plan to Foster Student Engagement
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Interdisciplinary
Authors: Denise Bartell, Scott Furlong, Regan A. R. Gurung, Andrew E. Kersten, Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay
Submission Date: February 26, 2007

Executive Summary: We designed a lesson that could be used with students from different classes working collaboratively together in a problem-focused learning exercise, namely the design of a university whose objective was to teach individuals from another planet about the cultures of Earth.

Learning goals. We had three primary learning goals for our lesson. The first was to provide students with experience analyzing and solving problems from an interdisciplinary perspective, and to foster an understanding of the value in doing so. The second goal was to increase student engagement in freshman-level courses by means of working together in interdisciplinary teams (with students from a variety of classes) to solve a complex problem. And finally, we wanted the lesson to foster students’ communication skills, specifically their abilities to write, speak in front of large groups, and communicate effectively in a small group environment.

Instructional design. To achieve these goals, students were introduced to the lesson and then given informational materials on the design of our own university. Students were told that they would be working with group members from six different courses in this project, and that they each would be representing the discipline of their class in this project. Students worked to complete an individual worksheet detailing what they considered to be primary objectives in the development of the university, as well as the basic components of curriculum, governance, and student development opportunities at the university. After discussing this in their individual classes, students spent two class days working in interdisciplinary groups with students from 5 other classes to design their university. They worked together to identify their top objectives for the university, as well as its key structures, and then created a physical representation of their work, which some groups then presented at the conclusion of this group work. After the group work was completed, students completed an individual paper on the experience where they were asked to discuss their understanding of interdisciplinarity, and the contributions of their group members to the project, and were also asked to complete a survey assessment of their experiences.

Major findings about student learning. The survey and observational findings of our project indicated that the lesson had a positive influence on all three of our learning goals. Students’ level of knowledge about interdisciplinarity seemed to increase as a result of their interdisciplinary group work, and they seemed to have developed a greater appreciation for the value of such a perspective by the end of the semester. In addition, students seemed to find the project highly engaging, a fact that was supported in our observations of their group work and in the results of our survey analysis. Finally, students seemed to perceive that the lesson work had a positive influence on their communication skills, particularly the group work that they completed. Overall, we feel that the lesson was quite successful in accomplishing our learning goals, but in the future we may change the assignment to that of designing an ideal university on our own planet, to avoid some of the issues raised in giving this rather abstract assignment to freshmen students. In addition, we may also try to build in more time, at the end of the group work, to a discussion of the groups’ projects.

Lesson Materials – Interdisciplinary Problem-Solving Study, “The University of Tre-Eh” Activity

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