Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

One outcome of the STEM Interdisciplinary Initiative is a greater emphasis on applied learning opportunities, including undergraduate research and community-based learning.

Morgan State University: Overcoming the Barriers to Interdisciplinary STEM Learning


Faculty from many of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at Morgan State University have been steadily moving toward greater interdepartmental collaboration over the last five years. At first these collaborations were informal and ad hoc. That changed in 2011, when Provost T. Joan Robertson assembled a team of faculty and administrators to participate in Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future (PCFF), an AAC&U project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) aimed at helping women of color faculty in STEM fields take on new leadership roles. In addition to working on their individual leadership skills, the women selected for the project began planning a formal Interdisciplinary STEM Research and Education Project aimed at bringing together faculty from the STEM disciplines and beyond to collaborate intentionally on both teaching and research.

The first year of the initiative has largely focused on faculty development and networking, but the ultimate beneficiaries will be the students at Morgan State, as faculty develop new strategies to help STEM students learn to solve problems that cross disciplinary boundaries, says Antoinette Coleman, assistant vice president of academic affairs and one of the PCFF team members. "This is not just about chemists and biologists talking together, or even [natural and physical scientists] talking with behavioral scientists—we're trying to help them all to understand, as faculty members, how to help our students grow."

Bringing Faculty Together

PCFF aims to provide professional and leadership development for women of color faculty in STEM fields, as well as NSF-designated natural and behavioral science disciplines, with the ultimate goal of improving undergraduate STEM education. As part of their participation in PCFF, the Morgan State team members attended AAC&U's Institute on Integrative Learning and the Departments in Burlington, VT, in July 2012. At the institute, the women started work on a plan to foster interdisciplinary collaboration that could be presented to the full Morgan State faculty and implemented in the fall.

The early meetings organized by the team focused on simply bringing faculty members from across the STEM fields together to discuss their individual research projects and share informal collaborations they may have already initiated. As faculty members from various departments became more familiar with each other's work, leaders hoped they might see opportunities to collaborate on new grant-funded projects and find common ground for curricular reform. When considering which disciplines they wanted to include, the team members cast a wide net, inviting a number of departments outside of the traditional STEM fields. Faculty from public health, mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences, engineering, architecture, psychology, science education, and mathematics education have participated in research presentations, roundtable discussions, and networking events hosted by the initiative team throughout the fall of 2012.

The team has also administered two surveys about faculty perspectives on interdisciplinary research and teaching. The results of those surveys will inform a framework for interdisciplinary curriculum reform that the initiative is currently developing. One emerging goal focuses on making the general education curriculum more integrated with students' major coursework, Coleman says.  "We're trying to deal with that balance of broad liberal arts education and discipline-specific coursework. We want students to start acquiring their general education skills in a variety of interdisciplinary courses that will also build toward their major course work," she says. "Those critical skills of problem solving, putting forth an argument—they come from a broad liberal arts education."

Making Learning Interdisciplinary at All Levels

Another aspect of the ongoing curricular reform efforts is a greater emphasis on applied learning. This is an important educational goal for all students, but especially those majoring in STEM disciplines, says Jumoke Ladeji-Osias, a member of the PCFF team and a professor of engineering. "Working on topics that cross boundaries allows them to understand not just how their discipline thinks, but how other disciplines approach problem solving," she says. From an engineering perspective, she says, "most problems will either require them to work with people from other disciplines or to work on something that may not be exactly like what they studied—but they have to be able to apply their skills to this new area."

Morgan State already has a broad infrastructure to encourage applied learning projects. The university's professional schools have good working relationships with employers and community organizations in the Baltimore area, and the university maintains its own laboratories and field projects, such as the Estuarine Research Center. Morgan State President David Wilson has also put an emphasis on engaging students in work with the immediate community: a new "Morgan Mile" initiative prioritizes applied learning projects that address issues affecting the communities within a one-mile radius of the university. While most student projects are still discipline-specific, Coleman says, one goal of the interdisciplinary initiative is to get students collaborating in interdisciplinary teams to complete projects that benefit the surrounding community.

But completing a project in the community is not enough in and of itself, says Roni Ellington, a PCFF team member and professor of mathematics education. Service learning in particular is not always fully integrated into course outcomes—"it's extra, one more thing to do, versus being grounded in what students are learning and brought back to the classroom," she says. She hopes the work they are doing in the STEM initiative will also lead to better integration of classroom content and community work, and to course assessments that reflect that integration. Furthermore, she says, community-based work needs to come from a two-way dialogue. "If we're going to teach psychology, say, what are the constructs students need to understand in order to work in the community? You tell us, and we'll figure out how to teach students to better serve you."

Ellington is also trying to address these same issues in Maryland's K-12 school systems. Ellington serves as a consultant to state secondary education officers and works with K-12 science and math educators in the Baltimore area to build classroom modules that are interdisciplinary and problem-based. In her work on both secondary and postsecondary curricula, Ellington focuses on "how mathematics supports the learning in engineering and other science disciplines. How do we move beyond abstract math to solving problems that incorporate real-world information? My work is about changing the way we think about STEM to a more broad approach to education." 

Bringing Down Siloes

Even when K-12 teachers are eager to embrace interdisciplinary collaboration, though, the structural barriers are significant. "Even if individual schools want to work across disciplines to build experiences that think about STEM broadly," Ellington says, "the way schooling is designed, it's nearly impossible to do that. [Teachers] know we should train kids for the twenty-first century this way, but the day-to-day organization of schools and universities aren't set up to do this work. That's what I've been thinking about for the past four years—how do we retool these systems to make interdisciplinary work feasible?"

Disciplinary entrenchment remains an issue in higher education, too, despite the greater autonomy of most colleges and universities. Grant-funded collaborations raise issues of individual credit and departmental funding, and many universities don't allow joint appointments for faculty members who work in multiple disciplines.  Perhaps the greatest barrier to interdisciplinary work is the incentive structure for faculty, the Morgan State team says.  Tenure and promotion tend to be awarded on the basis of individual accomplishments within one's discipline. Many faculty members are willing and even eager to reach out to other departments, but they need clear signals from administrators that this work is valued and will be rewarded.

Beyond tailoring faculty incentives, administrators also have to show their support by putting in face time, says Cleo Hughes Darden, a professor of biology who has taken an active role in the STEM initiative. Administrators have to consistently make appearances at interdisciplinary events—at faculty research presentations, curriculum meetings, roundtable discussions—and engage with faculty there to signal that this work is a priority for the university. That said, there's a balance to maintain between administrative support and faculty autonomy. "The real thinking and commitment must be from the faculty and the faculty stakeholders," Coleman says. Curricular reform requires serious work from the faculty, she says, and that will only happen with grassroots support. "They have to come together to shape how they would like to push forward their research initiates and reform of their courses and course content."

All the team members agree that making this kind of university-wide change is a constant, ongoing process. "[Our faculty] have to work at it every week, in addition to teaching, advising, research, and grant projects," Coleman says. "You can start with younger, energetic faculty, and some of your older faculty will be quick to buy in and serve as leaders—but you have to re-embrace all the faculty on a regular basis so they stay engaged. It has to be continuous. It can't go a month without anything happening."

Morgan State University