Interdisciplinary Collaborations Energize Faculty & Students at Gonzaga

By Dr. Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Gonzaga University

Dr. Brook O. Swanson, Biology, appears with students from Gonzaga University’s dance program during a performance of “Beautiful Weapons,” a scientific presentation using the language of dance (photo by Gonzaga University)

Dr. Brook O. Swanson, Biology, appears with students from Gonzaga University’s dance program during a performance of “Beautiful Weapons,” a scientific presentation using the language of dance (photo by Gonzaga University)

In today’s world, interdisciplinary collaborations are the sine qua non of professional life. Employers and our own alumni tell us that team work is essential, and that college graduates must be able to work as part of a group.

In an interdisciplinary team, each member brings different strengths, insights and perspectives to the discussion. As well, there is rising awareness that no one discipline by itself can solve the challenges that we face today—food safety, climate change or energy dependency, to name just a few. This is why, for example, more and more medical and nursing schools emphasize interprofessional education: looking at the whole person and examining the interlocking factors—medical, social, economic—that impact the patient’s overall health.

Dr. Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences (photo by Gonzaga University)

Dr. Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences (photo by Gonzaga University)

Gonzaga University, and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) in particular, is uniquely positioned to prepare students for the future by modeling interdisciplinarity through creative research and teaching collaborations, and by engaging them in such work. By working with cross-disciplinary faculty teams, students are able to discover that relevance for themselves, and to see how interdisciplinarity is crucial to solving problems.

Two courses in Gonzaga’s core curriculum are devised for the explicit purpose of exposing students to interdisciplinary work: the first-year seminar and the core integration seminar. With funding from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry, a group of faculty have developed interdisciplinary research teams so that students even in their first year will do research that transcends the boundaries of disciplines. Other teaching collaborations include courses on Dance and Biology (focusing on the physiology of movement), Art and Chemistry (focusing on the role of chemistry in art materials) and Political Science and Biology (focusing on policy and climate change). In these team-taught courses, students see faculty members as experts in one field and students in another, modeling what life-long learning looks like.

Dr. Juliane Mora, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies (photo by Gonzaga University)

Dr. Juliane Mora, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies (photo by Gonzaga University)

Teaching collaborations also happen across colleges. Communication Studies professor Juliane Mora works with engineering faculty to build communication components into their classes. For a Geomatics course, where the primary goal is for students to learn a mapping software, the professors designed an assignment that asked students to make an argument for what new structure should be built on an area of vacant land in Spokane County in Washington. They then had to articulate their reasons to an audience of non-engineers, in order to help them understand the broader implications of their recommendations.

The benefits of thinking about audience, purpose, communication style and message structure is relevant to any workplace scenario because so much of our work is communication-centered. The more they practice speaking to others and engaging with different methods for sharing their knowledge or insight, the more capable students will be in other environments. Mora notes, “One of the best parts about interdisciplinary collaboration is the ability to learn new material and become a well-rounded thinker.”

To encourage this kind of work, the CAS offers a grant program that supports interdisciplinary faculty and student research. The recipients of last year’s grant were Charlie Lassiter, a philosopher who specializes in philosophy of the mind, and Vinai Norasakkunkit, a cultural psychologist who studies the impact of culture on individuals. Both professors worked together to find out which societal forces afford greater degrees of marginalization in a particular population.

For this project, Lassiter devised a computer simulation model to apply Norasakkunkit’s theory on the psychology of marginalization. The computer model allows for micro-level manipulations (at the level of individual interactions) to examine the consequences at the macro-level (i.e. cultural change) over time and over generations. How do science and the philosophy of mind interact? Minds don’t work in a vacuum; we're not just computers plugging away at inputs. Rather, the cultures and societies in which we're reared profoundly shape our cognitive dispositions.

These discoveries entail all manner of interesting philosophical questions: How are we to think of minds, if not in terms of computers? Does what count as "good reasoning" change with culture, and is it at all possible to evaluate the reasoning of a foreign people? Norasakkunkit says, “Both Charlie and I are pushing the boundaries of our field by challenging conventional wisdom for how to think about the nature of the mind…Overall, working on this project made me realize that there is a limit to staying only within one's own discipline and that by crossing disciplines, we are able to expand the directions that our ideas and previous work can go.”

The two professors have been energized by their findings, and are now developing a course based on this collaboration. Lassiter notes that such collaborations are most interesting when the boundaries of their fields bump into one another, often leading researchers into unchartered territory.

Gonzaga students studying biology, chemistry, environmental science and other disciplines collaborate on water research on the banks of Lake Arthur in Spokane, WA (photo by Gonzaga University)

Gonzaga students studying biology, chemistry, environmental science and other disciplines collaborate on water research on the banks of Lake Arthur in Spokane, WA (photo by Gonzaga University)

It is precisely that unchartered territory where innovation takes place and problems are solved. Take, for example, a focus on water. In a chemistry laboratory last fall, Chemistry and Civil Environmental Engineering students worked with faculty to assess water quality in samples collected from the nearby Spokane River and Lake Arthur earlier that afternoon. In the lab next door, students from Biology and Environmental Studies collaborated with faculty and each other on an analysis of bacterial populations within the lake and river on samples collected in collaboration with students from Biology and Engineering.

Results from prior field analyses, as well as live images of the activities in the laboratories, were shown on displays in the main foyer of Gonzaga’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (ISE) building, where visitors to campus stopped to consider the meaning of the students’ work and whether these types of STEM studies might represent an exceptional opportunity for future learners. These visitors also watched as the monitors displayed intricate patterns revealed through the analyses conducted by Computer Science and Math students on terabyte-sized data sets collected on river level, chemistry and temperature using sensors designed and built in the ISE electronics lab by Electrical Engineering and Physics students. As these visitors turned from the monitors, they watched as Mechanical and Civil Engineering students worked in the student project spaces to build more stable sampling platforms, as well as submersible sampling vehicles, to be deployed in future assessment of flows and water quality in the river.

These case studies at Gonzaga University are just a few examples of what the future of higher education holds: retreating from silos, integrating disciplines, and offering new and exciting pathways to teaching and learning that are clearly connected to real-life issues.