Diversity and Democracy

The World Café: Promoting Interdisciplinary Dialogue on Global Health Issues

Interdisciplinary inquiry is an important pedagogical tool for faculty seeking to cultivate critical integrative thinking and problem-solving skills in students. It is also a necessary skill for the interprofessional practice of global health (Jogerst et al. 2015). Significant barriers, including university administrative structures, departmental resistance, and lack of resources, however, often inhibit faculty from developing interdisciplinary teaching opportunities with colleagues (Kezar and Elrod 2012).

To overcome some of these barriers, faculty from the Department of Justice and Peace Studies (JPST) at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, designed a faculty-driven, interdisciplinary teaching and learning exercise based on the World Café model (World Café Community Foundation, n.d.). We intended this exercise to encourage students to inquire thoughtfully, integrate knowledge, practice constructive dialogue, and make connections across disciplinary perspectives.

The World Café model promotes group dialogue on complex topics across diverse perspectives. Developed as a “simple, effective, and flexible format” for facilitating dialogue in large group settings, this methodological approach involves creating a space in which participants explore a set of guiding questions (World Café Community Foundation, n.d.). Since 2012, faculty at St. Thomas have used this model to facilitate conversations on critical health topics.

JPST faculty initially developed the learning exercise to represent a range of disciplines at our institution. Every year, JPST faculty invite faculty members from varied disciplinary backgrounds to collaborate, serve on the planning committee, and commit to involving their students in the exercise. Once the faculty planning committee is identified each year, members convene to define the framing questions for the interdisciplinary dialogue. Committee members are paired to facilitate interdisciplinary classroom teaching exchanges, and all participating faculty work together to plan a large dialogue for all students enrolled in their courses (see table 1).

Table 1. Faculty Planning Committee Timeline. (Click on image to enlarge.)


As long-standing members of the planning committee, we want to share this model with a larger audience so that it might be applied elsewhere. In this article, we also comment on some of our successes—including student learning outcomes and student, faculty, and community engagement—as well as our challenges.

Paired Teaching Exchanges

In 2018, we used the World Café in conjunction with interdisciplinary paired teaching exchanges to explore the topic of gun violence. The faculty planning committee developed a set of framing questions to shape the teaching exchanges and the World Café large group dialogue on guns and weapons in our communities, nation, and world:

  • What is and what should be the role of guns and weapons?
  • How can we reduce gun violence and gun deaths?
  • How do our different disciplines navigate these questions?

In previous years, faculty identified various global health topics for the dialogues, including climate change and HIV/AIDS (University of St. Thomas Newsroom 2016).

Fourteen faculty from different disciplinary backgrounds (public/global health, justice and peace studies, business, neuroscience, English, communication, theology, biology, criminal justice, social work, political science, and aerospace studies) and the 250 students enrolled in their courses participated in this exercise. Faculty were paired to form teaching exchange teams and used these cross-disciplinary partnerships to develop learning sessions in which they presented their own disciplinary perspective on gun violence during one of their partner’s regularly scheduled course times. Pairs determined their pedagogical model; some developed and delivered a guest lecture in their partner’s course, while other pairs cotaught a session to both sets of students. The classroom exchanges occurred over a two-week period. Faculty reported that they spent about two and a half hours identifying readings and preparing to deliver these lectures.

One faculty member (Amy C. Finnegan, a coauthor of this article) filled a critical administrative role by facilitating group communication and file exchanges, scheduling and leading meetings, engaging community partners to participate in the World Café event, and arranging the paired faculty teams. She paired faculty across disciplines while aligning class meeting times and student characteristics. For example, she paired the faculty instructor of Global Health and Development with the instructor of Communication of Race, Class, and Gender, and the instructor of Large Client Systems with the instructor of International Management.

Prior to attending the World Café dialogue with students and faculty from all fourteen courses, students completed a set of assigned readings so that they would share a common foundational orientation to the issue. Furthermore, they had already engaged with the topic of gun violence from at least two disciplinary perspectives during their teaching exchange.

The World Café Dialogue

Following the teaching exchanges, more than two hundred students and fourteen faculty met together in a large room on campus for the World Café dialogue. Participating faculty agreed to attend and require students in their courses to attend the evening event, which was noted in all syllabi. Most faculty tied attendance to students’ course grades and made alternative assignments, such as a reflective paper, for students who were unable to attend because of scheduling obstacles.

When students arrived at the World Café, they were encouraged to view and respond via social media to a gun violence art installation by Mike Klein, a committee faculty member and visual artist. The installation—created in collaboration with students—was entitled What Really Protects Us from Gun Violence? and consisted of a large umbrella with .38 caliber shells raining down on monofilament line. Social media responses were projected on screens for all to see as a prelude to the discussion.

The two-hour formal program began with a welcome from Finnegan and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an overview of the evening’s thematic focus on gun violence, which included two short video clips. After the welcome, faculty took turns naming the disciplinary questions that their perspective brought to a probe on gun violence. At the time of the World Café, the issue of gun violence was a particularly salient issue, as the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had taken place less than a month earlier and the Black Lives Matter movement continued to push for a national conversation on gun violence.

Students spent most of the evening in three separate twenty-minute rounds of dialogue at assigned tables, which a faculty member had arranged to bring students from different courses and disciplines together. Students facilitated their own discussions using guiding questions for each round. (Examples include “How do you explain the causes of gun violence?”; “What are the pressing issues we need to understand?”; and “What do we do now?”) Following each round, students moved to a new assigned table to engage with different students. After three rounds, faculty called the group’s attention to the center of the room, where they asked students to share lessons learned and then discussed possible ways for students to carry forward from the dialogues to action (e.g., attending on- or off-campus political demonstrations, bringing conversations to student clubs or classrooms, or visiting community partner tables at the event).

Successes: Learning Outcomes and Community Engagement

We conducted pre- and post-surveys of students to assess learning outcomes. Paired t-test comparisons, which can be used to demonstrate statistically significant changes in pre- and post-test scores, showed that after the teaching exchanges and World Café conversations, students were significantly more likely to feel comfortable describing both “how my discipline might address the issue of gun violence and gun death” and “interrelationships between different disciplinary perspectives on gun violence and gun death.” Students also felt more confident “working to address a problem to which the solution will require integrating ideas from different disciplines or perspectives.”

Quantitative responses were supported by qualitative student feedback. One student wrote, “World Café showed all of us that having a conversation is the most important part of making change. After humanizing each other, we can talk about potential solutions to the problem. It made us listen to each other and understand other opinions through a personal and professional lens.”

Lastly, the World Café also offered opportunities for students and faculty to engage with two local organizations that accepted our invitation to set up tables at the event: Protect Minnesota and the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Representatives from one of the organizations asked us to share with them students’ brainstormed ideas for addressing gun violence from round three of the dialogue. A representative told us that the organization might weave elements of the students’ ideas into future policy recommendations.

Challenges: Attendance and Funding

The World Café was held outside of scheduled class meeting times, which could make attendance a challenge, particularly for working and nontraditional students with family obligations. We stressed the date and time of the event from the first day of class and asked students to make all reasonable accommodations to attend. About 85 percent of students attended the event.

Funding such a large event can be challenging, too. In 2018, costs were around $1,200, nearly all of it for food and beverages for the dialogue event. The teaching exercise is faculty-driven and requires roughly twelve to fifteen hours of uncompensated work during the planning year. We used on-campus spaces for the dialogue event (initially, the basketball court with students seated on the floor, and later a large banquet room with students seated at dining tables), which incurred no additional cost. Other expenses were nominal and included printing. Home departments from participating faculty members offered between $100 and $400 in cosponsorship funds. In spring 2019, we received allocated university funds for the first time, which supported the cost of food at the event.

As the faculty planning committee has sought to institutionalize the annual interdisciplinary event, we have con­sidered increasing the event’s budget to include nominal incentives for faculty time and/or food at faculty planning meetings. Providing modest honoraria for faculty, rather than relying on uncompensated faculty time, could help make the program sustainable over the long term. We have also considered pursuing intramural teaching grants or external funds to support our interdisciplinary learning event.

We have a core group of faculty who eagerly commit to being involved each year, and we recruit new faculty every year. The opportunity to collaborate and build relationships with colleagues from across the university while exploring contemporary societal issues has proven rewarding for faculty. For many of us, this is the vision of higher education to which we were originally drawn.

We offer this essay so that faculty groups at other institutions might apply our highly adaptable approach to interdisciplinary teaching and learning. This model can be used to promote integrative thinking and practice interdisciplinary dialogue and problem solving around major global health issues. We have found that this approach also overcomes many of the barriers to interdisciplinary teaching, as it is faculty-driven and follows a streamlined planning process yet yields significant gains in student learning.


Jogerst, Kristen, Brian Callender, Virginia Adams, Jessica Evert, Elise Fields, Thomas Hall, Jody Olsen, Virginia Rowthorn, Sharon Rudy, Jiabin Shen, Lisa Simon, Herica Torres, Anvar Velji, and Lynda L. Wilson. 2015. “Identifying Interprofessional Global Health Competencies for 21st-Century Health Professionals.” Annals of Global Health 81 (2): 239–47. https://annalsofglobalhealth.org/articles/abstract/10.1016/j.aogh.2015.03.006/.

Kezar, Adrianna, and Susan Elrod. 2012. “Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning: Lessons from Project Kaleidoscope.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 44 (1): 16–25.

University of St. Thomas Newsroom. 2016. “University World Café Event Brings Students Together for Interdisciplinary Dialogue.” June 1, 2016. https://news.stthomas.edu/world-cafe-event-brings-students-together-interdisciplinary-dialogue/.

World Café Community Foundation. n.d. “World Café Method.” http://www.theworldcafe.com/key-concepts-resources/world-cafe-method/.

Starr K. Sage is Assistant Professor, Public Health; J. Roxanne Prichard is Professor, Psychology and Neuroscience; and Amy C. Finnegan is Associate Professor, Justice and Peace Studies—all at the University of St. Thomas.

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