Diversity and Democracy

International and Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Implications for Undergraduate Education

There has never been a time when higher education has not been in transition. But at no time other than the present has change been so comprehensive, so consequential, so radical, and so dynamic. The rapid expansion of postsecondary institutions around the world, the meteoric rise in students' international mobility, the explosion of international collaboration in research, and the growing experimentation with multiple modes of content delivery all exemplify the broad sweep of change occurring in higher education today.

What all these changes have in common is the transformative hand of globalization. Manifest in practically all domains of human endeavor, globalization "is the most important contextual factor shaping the internationalization of higher education" (International Association of Universities 2012, 1). The question is not whether higher education should respond to globalization. Instead, it is how higher education can best meet its core responsibilities by harnessing the opportunities and negotiating the challenges that globalization presents.

Collaborative Approaches

Historically, higher education's core responsibilities have involved pursuing new knowledge and preparing students with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions they need to be productive and successful citizens. Today, higher education must continue to meet these responsibilities in a substantially altered environment where the major challenges facing humankind are global in nature and require insights from the best and brightest minds across multiple disciplines. The scholarship, teaching, and learning that are necessary in this context are characterized by interdisciplinary and international collaboration.

Interdisciplinarity allows scholars to use "insights, methods, principles, and even hunches" from multiple epistemological traditions in order to "push the boundaries of knowledge and open up new vistas of discovery and innovation" (Charles 2014, 2). Climate change and cybersecurity are two examples of global challenges that require precisely such an approach. Like interdisciplinarity, international collaboration has key benefits related to addressing global challenges. There is a growing body of evidence—see Katz and Hicks (1997), Sooryamoorthy (2009), Narin and Whitlow (1990), and Freeman and Huang (2014)—suggesting that the best science, measured by frequency of citation, "involves collaboration across national borders in research teams that are diverse" (Charles 2014, 2).

How can faculty and administrators transform these compelling ideals into curricular practice? At Northern Arizona University (NAU), a number of scholarly projects (supported by grants provided, in part, by NAU's Center for International Education) confirm that teaching and learning can benefit from interdisciplinary scholarship that involves international collaboration and is globally focused.

Challenges and Projects

Human interaction with the landscape over thousands of years has led to the loss of biodiversity and devastating environmental change around the world. Scott Anderson, professor of paleoecology, is collaborating with scholars from France and Spain in disciplines that include paleoecology, landscape archaeology, and land use history to examine the effects of such interaction. Anderson has used project findings in a course on historical ecology that examines the record of human-landscape interaction in sites such as Norway, Mexico, and southern Spain. In another course, Southwest Environments through Time, Anderson has used project findings to discuss land use practices by Spanish colonials who drew on their culture when creating "transported landscapes" along the California coast. These courses provide students with perspectives on human-landscape interaction derived from examples around the world while illustrating how scholars apply their own disciplinary lenses to amplify various aspects of the subject.

Although indigenous people exist all over the world, individual groups may be small and lacking in resources and therefore may not command the attention necessary to advance their respective agendas. In the aggregate, however, these groups often share struggles around political exclusion, the preservation of culture and languages, issues of land rights, and access to educational opportunities. Five years ago, a working group formed by Michelle Harris, professor of sociology, brought together scholars from various locations and multiple disciplines, including sociology, history, philosophy, media, film, literature, and anthropology, to examine the issue of indigenous identity. Among the many outcomes of this group's scholarly collaboration is a course titled Indigenous Identities in a Global Context, which Harris and a colleague at the University of Wollongong, Australia, will team teach in fall 2015. One of the pedagogical tools developed for this course is a series of video clips of scholars talking about their publications related to indigenous identity—expanding on ideas raised in course readings, posing questions, and articulating their discipline-based perspectives on topics addressed in class. In exposing students to various interdisciplinary and international perspectives, this tool deepens student learning.

Disease caused by infectious bacteria constitutes a significant challenge to human health around the world. Working with colleagues from Brazil and Malaysia representing disciplines such as biochemistry, microbiology, computer science, and chemistry, Andrew Koppisch, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is conducting research that addresses this challenge. Since most bacteria need iron in order to grow, thrive, and become infectious, finding ways to stop enzymes from acquiring iron is one crucial approach to defeating pathogenic bacteria. The research team has identified molecules involved in inhibiting enzymes that capture iron and has developed detailed models that predict possible interactions between these molecules and iron-capturing enzymes. Koppisch has used findings from this work in courses like Fundamentals of Biochemistry, where students test the effect of such molecules on microbial cells.

Finally, the threat of future energy shortages and the deleterious effects of fossil fuel use make renewable energy sources imperative for human survival and progress. John Gibbs, professor of physics, is collaborating to address these issues with colleagues from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands representing disciplines including physical chemistry, nanotechnology, physics, and material sciences. In this collaboration, US physicists will manufacture nanomaterials that they believe will allow for more efficient conversion of solar energy into electrical energy. Collaborators in the United Kingdom and Germany will establish the properties necessary to optimize efficiency. After the nanomaterials have been manufactured, a collaborator in the Netherlands will research their effectiveness in creating hydrogen and oxygen gases, elements that are central to solar energy conversion. Students enrolled in Gibbs' upper-division nanotechnology course will have an opportunity to learn about nanomaterials and their effectiveness in converting solar energy into electrical energy, benefitting directly from the latest findings of this collaborative research project.

Supportive Structures

Interdisciplinarity and international collaborations are becoming increasingly significant features of twenty-first-century scholarship, and such commitments ultimately affect the teaching and learning that occurs in the academy. Institutions that recognize this reality and act to support this agenda are well on their way to preparing students with the tools necessary to both understand and help solve the global challenges facing humanity. Northern Arizona University intentionally supports this kind of research and teaching through its Global and Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching Fund, which pools resources from the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Office of the Provost, and the Center for International Education. Faculty are invited to submit proposals that demonstrate international and interdisciplinary collaboration and also articulate the global nature of research and teaching objectives. Intentional engagement with interdisciplinary and international collaboration will create dynamic and exciting contexts for teaching, learning, and scholarship—contexts that may very well serve as models for excellence in higher education in the age of globalization.


Charles, Harvey. 2014. "Interdisciplinarity and International Scholarly Collaboration: Requisite Features of 21st Century Scholarship." NAU Global, Fall. http://nau.edu/uploadedFiles/Administrative/Provost/CIE/_Media/NAUGlobaFall2014.pdf.

Freeman, Richard B., and Wei Huang. 2014. "Collaborating with People Like Me: Ethnic Co-authorship within the US." National Bureau of Economic Research (Working Paper No. 19905). http://www.nber.org/papers/19905.

International Association of Universities. 2012. "Affirming Academic Values in Internationalization of Higher Education: A Call for Action."

Katz, J. S., and Diana Hicks. 1997. "How Much is Collaboration Worth? A Calibrated Bibliometric Model." Scientometrics 40 (3): 541–54.

Narin, Francis, and E. S. Whitlow. 1990. Measurement of Scientific Cooperation and Coauthorship in CEC-Related Areas of Science. Luxembourg: Commission of the European Communities.

Sooryamoorthy, Radhamany. 2009. "Do Types of Collaboration Change Citation? Collaboration and Citation Patterns of South African Science Publications." Scientometrics 81 (1): 177–93.

Harvey Charles is former vice provost for international education at Northern Arizona University and dean and vice provost for international education at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

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