Interdisciplinary Programs – Call for a Network!

Absence of links between university interdisciplinary programs is a lost opportunity

One aim of many new and innovative programs across Canadian universities is to encourage and foster interdisciplinary thinking. There are almost as many different proposed ways of achieving it as there are programs. The aims, approaches, and presumably outcomes of each program are slightly different. For example, the Science One program at the University of British Columbia does it by having experts from several disciplines contribute to each lecture (this is the “duet” model). Thus, whenever a topic is introduced, the various experts can weigh in and make the connections between the disciplines.

McMaster is about to launch the iSci program, where interdisciplinary themes and concepts are used to drive the learning and make the connections between the sciences. At Quest, the courses tend to be more traditional disciplines, but students are encouraged to use the methods of enquiry from several fields of study to answer a Question (an individualized major). There are many other models out there (and indeed, I know I am not doing justice to the complexity and richness of each program I have described) – these are but a sampling.

These seem to be a consensus that interdisciplinary thinking is a wise thing to have in the 21st century. The question is why? One pragmatic answer has to do with the fact that most people will follow many different career paths in their lives, and familiarity with as many different fields of studies is crucial to a successful professional life. The more ideologically-inclined might hold that knowing about multiple modes of enquiry is valuable for its own sake, as a form of personal enlightenment.

Another argument I have heard is that while the current specialization that is encouraged in our higher education system is necessary for a society to function, we have neglected to educate the people who can bridge the disciplines, translate between two specialists to link them up. Finally, it must be said that many innovations and important insights come from discovering links between disciplines, finding ways in which areas relate to one another and new ways of thinking about a subject.

Innovative interdisciplinary undergraduate programs are starting up all over the country. Most of these use very different approaches to achieve their goal (indeed, most of them interpret the term “interdisciplinary” in very different ways). It seems to me that most of these programs are operating in virtual isolation from one another. Unless I am mistaken, there is no network or conference in Canada where people who develop and teach in these undergraduate interdisciplinary programs can link-up, learn from one another, and discuss common issues.

This represents a lost opportunity. In my years in the Coordinated Science Program at UBC, and at Quest, there have certainly been many lessons learned. Presumably, how these challenges were resolved could benefit others in similar programs. I similarly relish the thought of learning about the innovations that others have made, and to compare how outcomes are best met by each strategy.

Consequently, I am proposing the formation of a network of faculty developing and teaching interdisciplinary undergraduate programs across Canada. As I mentioned, I do not think such a network exists. If it does, would you be so kind as to mention it in the comments below. Otherwise, I volunteer to start such a network.

If you are interested in joining, please contact me (apg at This would serve as a forum for discussion of the issues that work and do not work in interdisciplinary programs, and to learn about different approaches used to achieve interdisciplinary goals. It may also serve as a forum to start collaborative pedagogical research projects on interdisciplinary education. If this network is successful and helpful in fostering communication between programs, I propose a conference (probably in two years’ time) where we can meet and discuss issues pertinent to people who practice and believe in this approach to education.

Is there interest and/or support for this sort of communication endeavour among the Canadian interdisciplinary undergraduate education community?