Diversity and Democracy

Creating Interdisciplinary and Global Perspectives through Community-based Research

Supported by a generous endowment from Harold and Helen McMaster, in 2002 Defiance College established the McMaster School for Advancing Humanity with the directive that students and faculty use their scholarship to improve the human condition. From the McMaster School's inception, it has provided opportunities for faculty and students from all disciplines to engage in purposeful research within diverse global communities. The school has since evolved into a catalyst for academically formidable interdisciplinary initiatives that have significantly affected faculty, students, and community partners.

Students work with a ranger from Programme for Belize to document biodiversity on the periphery  of the Rio Bravo preserve.
Students work with a ranger from Programme for Belize to document biodiversity on the periphery 
of the Rio Bravo preserve.

The McMaster School's mission is

  • to educate students for responsible citizenship;
  • to produce committed global citizens and leaders who understand the importance of individual liberties in improving the human condition worldwide; and
  • to encourage graduates to take an active role in addressing these issues in whatever professions they may choose.

This mission comes to fruition through innovative interdisciplinary learning communities where faculty and students apply their academic expertise to improving the lives of others.

The McMaster Model

The McMaster School's model begins to take shape each January and February, when faculty submit fellow applications. These applications outline (1) the proposed research, (2) the context and location, including the community partner's involvement in determining the project's direction, and (3) the faculty member's commitment and ability to support a learning community of students from multiple disciplines. An off-campus advisory board reviews fellow applications and names fellows for the upcoming academic year. Each fellow receives both a research stipend and a three-semester-hour course release to implement his or her initiative.

In March and April, students submit scholar proposals for individual on-site research projects at locations designated by fellows. Each proposal includes (1) a literature review that provides a disciplinary, locational, and community context for the project, (2) the project methodology, and (3) a clearly defined anticipated outcome. The next year's fellows and an administrative team rank these scholar applications, selecting and announcing the learning communities prior to the close of spring semester.

Each learning community also includes associate fellows--faculty and staff who serve in a support capacity, traveling with and participating in the learning communities for the entire initiative. While these faculty members do not engage in specific required research, they often conduct exploratory research and lay the groundwork for a fellow proposal in the subsequent year. Associate fellows submit applications and are selected at the same time as scholars.

Learning communities vary in size but generally consist of two to three fellows, two associate fellows, and six to twelve scholars. Each learning community spans one year and includes a two-to-three-week on-site field experience. While on campus, learning communities generally meet for two hours each week over two semesters, both to prepare for the on-site field work and to reflect and analyze after the trip. The McMaster endowment supports the cost of travel, food, lodging, and research equipment for approximately six to eight faculty members and thirty students--translating into three to four locations in any given academic year.

All projects accepted by the McMaster School clearly address the school's goals:

1. To critically examine the root causes of human suffering through community-based research that addresses systemic factors that impede human progress

2. To give students the knowledge and capacities to be active world citizens and to view themselves as members of the world community

3. To contribute actively through sponsored scholarship and service to the improvement of the human condition worldwide

4. To exchange, create, and disseminate knowledge about successful models of active citizenship and public service

5. To create at Defiance College one of the nation's premier undergraduate educational programs with a focus on scholarship and service and a special emphasis on developing an innovative approach to teaching

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Work

Recognizing the value of interdisciplinary contexts in developing solutions to complex real-world problems, the McMaster learning communities convene faculty and students of various disciplines to design, implement, and reflect on their individual research projects as an interdisciplinary team. Faculty and students in the communities work to develop connections between their respective individual projects, and between those projects' effects on community partners.

For the learning communities to succeed, students and faculty must learn to rely on one another and work constructively. This can be challenging for both faculty and students, who are often accustomed to the authoritarian classroom model, in which teachers and texts are the sole sources of expertise. In contrast to this model, learning communities require participants to engage in cooperative and collaborative learning to arrive at knowledge that is socially constructed and reconstructed by "negotiating with one another in [a community] of knowledgeable peers" (Smith et al. 2004). This collaboration results in a well-prepared research team that can complete projects effectively in the relatively short time the team is on the ground while actively connecting their academic work with the larger society.

McMaster learning communities provide an active educational environment that can move students from individualistic to global perspectives. The diversity within each learning community--of expertise, discipline, learning style, and identity--supports the development of global perspectives, as does the exchange that occurs when internally diverse cohorts work on location with partners vastly different from themselves. Through strategic preparation including readings that address each community's unique needs, the learning communities become able to bridge differences in ethnicity, socioeconomic background, expertise, need, and resource base. As a result, community participants transition from isolation to appreciation for an individual's role in a global society.

Within learning communities, students strive to apply their disciplinary content or knowledge to new venues and unsolved problems. This process provides a mechanism for deep learning--education that becomes part of a person's evolving understanding of his or her discipline in context, and that transforms the learner in some way (Entwistle n.d.). Deep learning flourishes in the safety of community, where students can take the risks necessary to relate past experiences to present challenges. By integrating traditional curricular knowledge with extreme challenges in the field, students can move toward a more complex understanding of the world.

Through deliberate opportunities for reflection and self-assessment, students develop a conscious connection between academic content and critical, creative application. Throughout the experience, we ask scholars to examine what they know or assume and reflect on how their project-related learning is causing their understandings to evolve or change. Reflection exercises include nightly discussions while on site, responses to specific journal prompts, and a culminating activity: preparing submissions for the annual McMaster Journal (available online at www.defiance.edu/pages/MS_journal.html). Through these exercises, we challenge students to reach within themselves for the understanding and knowledge to adapt and solve problems.

Belize Project: The McMaster School in Action

Individual Projects in Belize, 2008-09

Participants in the 2008-09 McMaster Belize initiative conducted a range of individual projects that align with one or more Integrated Natural Resource Management goals--to enhance human well-being, to increase productivity, and to preserve ecosystem functions. Topics included:

  • Risk Assessment/Remediation in Rural Belize--CPR and Water Safety Training (Forensic Science)
  • Developing a Campaign for Solar Power for San Carlos School (Business)
  • Developing Literacy in Rural Belize (Education)
  • Developing a Marketing Plan for the Indian Church Artisan Center (Business)
  • Developing Mechanisms for Intervention for San Carlos School (Education)
  • Assessing Water Quality in the New River Lagoon Watershed (Molecular Biology)
  • Creating Awareness about Developmental Delays (Education)
  • Developing Non-Chemical Solutions for Lepidopteron Agricultural Pests (Biology)
  • Developing Resources for Effective Partnerships (History)
  • Documenting the Use of Medicinal Plants through Oral Histories (History)
  • Improving the Pottery Capabilities of Indian Church Artisans (Art)
  • Promoting Differentiated Instruction (Education)
  • Soil Nutrient Analysis in Northern Belize (Physical Science)

-Mary Ann Studer

For the past four years of a five-year partnership, the McMaster School has supported projects in Belize that center around the Integrated Natural Resource Management (INRM) schema developed by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) (Izac and Sanchez 2002). INRM provides a framework for the projects' interdisciplinary goal of improving and developing sustainable communities in Belize. Each year's participants align their efforts with a common goal: to empower small, isolated indigenous communities to develop sustainably while simultaneously supporting environmental conservation.

Our task is facilitated by the fact that in Belize, the goals of sustainability and development are ultimately mutually reinforcing. People struggling to feed their families tend to place a low priority on environmental preservation. Yet as Sayer and Campbell have pointed out, impoverished people often "depend upon the 'natural capital' that supports their lives just as much as they do on the more tangible assets of money and property" (2004). Substantial evidence suggests that degraded ecosystems correlate to poverty, famine, and natural disasters. Through our work in Belize, we have demonstrated that improved income levels, access to education, and infrastructure do not have to come at the expense of the environment.

While faculty and student participants change each year and the group's disciplinary perspectives consequently shift, our Belizean partnerships provide an impetus for continued work. We work with multiple partners, including the Programme for Belize (the nongovernmental organization that manages the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area) and the indigenous populations on the periphery of the Rio Bravo preserve, who need to move beyond a subsistence level of living. Interdisciplinary work forms the core of our research and our ability to respond to these partners' multiple perspectives. It allows us to engage in "a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession" (Klein and Newell 1996).

Since the school's inception, projects have evolved toward an increasingly interdisciplinary focus. The Belize initiative provides an example: in 2004 the team consisted of two science fellows and three science scholars, while the most recent team consisted of three fellows (one each from science, education, and art) and scholars majoring in science, education, business, history, and the humanities. This shift to a more engaged interdisciplinary team correlates to the growth of our Belizean partnerships in response to community challenges. Over the last five years, our effort in Belize has strategically aligned over forty research projects in many disciplines to support a set of community-based goals. We have created an interdisciplinary organizational framework that focuses multiple initiatives on a unified goal--the big picture.

In addition to the work in Belize, the McMaster program has supported initiatives in Cambodia, Jamaica, Guatemala, Thailand, Israel, Ireland, and New Orleans. These sites all uphold the McMaster program's rigorous standards of research and scholarship through a range of approaches to a wide variety of community challenges. Each project follows a unique approach determined by its logistical aspects, location, and diverse working relationships with community partners. Within each learning community, students and faculty travel a dynamic learning curve as they translate their academic expertise to positive impact.

Creating a New Culture

Since the McMaster School's inception in 2002, over 10 percent of the student body has participated as McMaster scholars, and over 50 percent of Defiance College's full-time faculty has participated as fellows or associate fellows. Other faculty members have assisted scholars in their research or have incorporated aspects of McMaster projects in their coursework, as in a general chemistry course that explores water testing protocols or an educational methods class that translates lesson plans into a community partner's native language for use in teacher training. McMaster School projects have spanned every discipline on campus, and no locations currently follow a single disciplinary focus.

The McMaster School's pervasive influence on campus has permeated every discipline. Participants in the program have grown to a critical mass at Defiance College, creating a culture of awareness of disciplinary expertise that can be applied in the global arena.

For more information, visit www.defiance.edu/mcmaster_school.html.


Entwistle, N. Promoting deep learning through teaching and assessment. In Assessment to promote deep learning: Insights from AAHE's 2000 and 1999 assessment conferences, ed. L. Suskie. Washington, DC: American Association of Higher Education.

Izac, A. M., and P. A. Sanchez. 2002. Towards a natural resource management paradigm for international agriculture: the example of agroforestry research. Agricultural Systems 69: 5-25.

Klein, J., and W. Newell. 1996. Advancing interdisciplinary studies. In Handbook of the undergraduate curriculum, eds. J. Gaff and J. Ratcliff, 393-394. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sayer, J., and B. Campbell. 2004. The science of sustainable development: Local livelihoods and the global environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, B. L., J. MacGregor, R. S. Matthews, and F. Gabelnick. 2004. Learning communities reforming undergraduate education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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