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Interdisciplinary Problem-Solving to Advance STEM Success for All Students
In 1980, Congress took decisive action on the national paucity of opportunity, access, and success of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by mandating that the National Science Foundation (through the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act) develop the STEM talents of the country’s citizenry irrespective of gender, ethnicity, race, and economic background. Now, some thirty years later, this battle still rages on with no clear, comprehensive victory in sight. Many—if not most—of our twenty-first-century challenges will coalesce around STEM, dealing with issues ranging from such medical dilemmas as drug-resistant bacteria, to the scarcity of natural resources, to oil spills and climate change. Solutions to these challenges will require a workforce armed with a skill set that engenders technological sophistication and interdisciplinary thinking. It is, therefore, critical to train and engage a diverse workforce so as to provide foundational STEM education for the nation’s citizenry with all of its inherent diversity. Both mathematics and science education must be radically improved. According to a recent National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008) report, “American students have not been succeeding in the mathematical part of their education at anything like a level expected of an international leader.”
To better prepare our diverse student body for these future challenges, New York City College of Technology (City Tech) has made engagement for all students in STEM disciplines an institutional goal. City Tech is the senior college of technology among the twenty-three campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the nation. The college awards both associate and baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts and career and technical fields. In fall 2010, with a student population of 15,368, 31.7 percent of students self-classified as Hispanic, 34 percent as African American (non-Hispanic), 18.5 percent as Asian/Pacific Islander, 11 percent as white, 0.5 percent as Native American, and 4.3 percent as other. Additionally, 67 percent are the first in their families to attend college and 52 percent reported a household income of less than $30,000. Seventy-eight percent of incoming first-year students received need-based financial aid and 30 percent of students reported working twenty or more hours per week.
To better serve those populations, our institution embraced interdisciplinary learning because of its many benefits to student learning, in general, and to the integration of STEM knowledge, in particular. Interdisciplinary studies nurture and enhance the ability to assemble (locate, organize, and evaluate) ideas and information from disparate sources into a coherent whole; the ability to function within a team setting; the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world problems; and the ability to effectively communicate complex cross-disciplinary problems both orally and in writing. Interdisciplinary studies involve two or more academic subjects or fields of study that synthesize broad perspectives, knowledge, skills, and epistemology in an educational setting. It focuses on questions, problems, or topics too complex or broad for a single discipline or field to cover adequately, and they specialize in highlighting connections between seemingly exclusive disciplinary domains. In order to advance our interdisciplinary initiative, we participated in the Keck/PKAL (Project Kaleidoscope) Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning (FIDL) Project (http://pkal.org/activities/PVIIDST.cfm). This initiative has benefited City Tech by providing the support required to improve the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary STEM pedagogy and the concomitant success outcomes for underrepresented populations.
City Tech’s initiative focused on two areas: engaging student interest in interdisciplinary learning and establishing a faculty interdisciplinary STEM community. To this end, we created an interdisciplinary course that provides students with the opportunity to explore various interdisciplinary topics, such as what it means to be human. Students who take the course experience a continuum of research experiences—from library, to laboratory, to the actual physical environment of the college. A focus on both real-world problems and hands-on experimentation has proven motivating to all students, but especially those whose prior preparation in STEM may have been limited. We have also created a faculty learning community, which brings together the many strands of reform and innovation currently underway at City Tech in order to devise a coherent interdisciplinary STEM curriculum that features learning goals, implementation strategies, and measurable learning outcomes. This community exemplifies the collaborative approaches that characterize the organization of current technological work and represent the future of science. By demonstrating the effectiveness of interdisciplinary learning in STEM, City Tech will be able to provide significant guidance to peer institutions also challenged by a diverse, underprepared student body.
Student-Centered Component of Interdisciplinary Learning
In order to create an interdisciplinary community of problem solvers and inspire a nation of STEM learners, City Tech created an interdisciplinary STEM prototype of programs that is state-of-the-art and transformative. The student component of the prototype for STEM education is rooted in the following three main areas: (1) the Black Male Initiative (BMI), a STEM-designated program; (2) Peer-Assisted Learning; and (3) an interdisciplinary course, Weird Science: Interpreting and Redefining Humanity.
The BMI and Its Interdisciplinary Strands
City Tech has created a new coordinated initiative to attract, retain, and graduate African American male students in the STEM disciplines. STEM was selected as the area of focus not only because of the national STEM crisis among minorities, but also because the STEM disciplines are among the college’s flagship and strongest programs and these areas of study are those in which African Americans are notably underrepresented. Increasing the numbers of underrepresented minority students who succeed in STEM disciplines is important not only to the economic vitality of the New York metropolitan area, but also to the nation as a whole. As such, the BMI serves as a prototype for future cohort-based initiatives that address the needs of other educationally underserved populations in higher education that have not been advantaged equally. A key component of the project will be to maximize the exposure of all students to successful African American scientists and engineers, to nurture relationships between our students and practicing scientists and engineers, and to adapt to the needs of our institutional approaches to STEM education that have proven to be so successful at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Since its inception six years ago with fourteen students, the BMI program has grown to over four hundred students today, and BMI students have higher STEM retention rates, graduation rates, and mathematics persistence rates than non-BMI STEM students at City Tech. This better performance by the BMI students (we believe) is at least in part due to a major cornerstone of the BMI program—its focus on providing interdisciplinary learning experiences for its students. Not only does the program provide interdisciplinary learning experiences via the interdisciplinary Peer-Assisted Learning modules described below, but it also has a well developed, structured interdisciplinary research component whereby some BMI students engage in interdisciplinary research (ex. Satellite and Ground-Based Remote Sensing of the Environment, Climate Change Impacts on Health, Water Resources, Energy, Agriculture, etc.) and present this research (orally and by poster at various national and local conferences). Additionally, the BMI exposes its students to a variety of research areas in disciplines different from their own by taking them to the Brookhaven National Laboratory where they are exposed to interdisciplinary project synthesis and where their awareness of interdisciplinary learning is heightened and challenged. The many STEM exposure trips that the students take to museums along the East Coast make up the third strand of the BMI interdisciplinary approach. Some trips have several STEM projects attached to them, and the students (from different disciplines) work collaboratively in teams to complete the projects. We, therefore, believe that interdisciplinary team learning can play a pivotal role in increasing the achievement of students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM.
Supportive learning environments are essential in helping undergraduates, especially underrepresented minorities, in the sciences and mathematics. Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL)—a vital component and corner-stone of the Black Male Initiative Program and a bedrock program at City Tech—is a form of instruction adapted from the Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) student-centered instructional model wherein students actively learn in a small group, facilitated by a peer leader. Since mathematics is the gatekeeper of many science and engineering disciplines, PAL mathematics workshops are designed to provide an academic support system with a peer leader to assist as a role model and facilitator. The goal of the PAL mathematics workshops is to build a community which maintains a safe setting for students to question and challenge concepts, to integrate various problem-solving strategies, and to communicate ideas while working collaboratively on mathematical modules with interdisciplinary themes. A typical PAL mathematics workshop consists of eight to ten students who meet regularly with a peer leader for one hour a week for twelve weeks. The team works collaboratively on modules that are conducive to meaningful group discussions while encouraging diverse learners to reinforce their understanding of the course materials.
The workshop provides an opportunity for students to discuss their understanding of the concepts in a nonthreatening environment. The peer leader guides by asking questions, providing hints and immediate feedback, and encouraging a positive learning atmosphere. The modules used in the PAL mathematical workshop are designed to increase critical thinking skills, enhance problem-solving abilities, and strengthen computational proficiency. With the goal of increasing the students’ ability to transfer the language of mathematics to the sciences, modules with interdisciplinary themes are used to highlight key concepts. Real-world examples provide students with a sense of significance and applicability. Students also review specialized mathematics vocabulary and learn how to identify the relevant mathematics operations needed to solve problems. This pedagogical paradigm of student engagement is found to be effective in promoting success in mathematics.
City Tech has also created a community of peer leaders to address the retention efforts of underrepresented students in STEM courses. These peer leaders facilitate workshops for courses that they have taken successfully (B+ or higher). They are recruited based on their STEM majors, GPA, and interpersonal and communication skills. The peer leaders play an indispensable role in providing guidance for the group by ensuring that the team actively engages itself with the appropriate mathematical concepts and with each other, thereby building commitment and confidence among the students and constructing meaningful deliberations and discussions. Because they have previously taken the course, the peer leaders understand the challenges, nuances, and misconceptions of the course material. They, however, do not give away answers, but rather offer well-timed assistance when the group members find themselves in difficult situations as they solve the problems collaboratively. The peer leaders are trained through a one-credit course. The course goals for the students are to implement pedagogical techniques in workshops, write about their workshop experience and their roles as peer leaders using learning theories, and understand the emphasis and the impact on students’ learning in a collaborative setting. A weekly reflective journal revealing the development of workshop practices is required. These peer leaders are also provided a first-hand experience in conducting a mini-research project by examining their practice with a learning theory based on their experience.
Approximately 500 students have participated in the PAL workshops from academic years 2008–2011. Workshop participants have shown to have a range of approximately 11–24 percent higher grades than the college’s overall grade distribution. Moreover, the community of peer leaders has been supportive in retaining and graduating STEM students. From a total of fifty-five peer leaders, 12.7 percent are in either graduate, medical, or pharmacy school; 16.4 percent have graduated with a STEM degree and are applying to graduate school; and 52.7 percent are still retained in their STEM disciplines.
Weird Science: Interpreting and Redefining Humanity
Another strand of our interdisciplinary prototype is the development, implementation, and offering of a new course we call Weird Science. This writing-intensive course, which incorporates digital media, allows students to explore the literature of shifting and expanding definitions of humanity and post-humanity. The course goals are to provide and engage students with an understanding of ideas and connections in the natural and social sciences, technology, and engineering. This includes: (a) cultural factors that affect these disciplines; (b) philosophical, historical, and ethical perspectives; (c) methods for finding pertinent information; (d) critical evaluation of ideas and their sources; (e) developing the critical writing skills to discuss these ideas in an academic context; and (f) using multimedia and simulations to communicate information.
This course focuses, first, on being human and then on being human virtually. Initial topics covered medical interventions in the body (e.g., the effect of having an artificial limb, heart, or face transplant on a human being) while later topics, on being virtually human, included artificial intelligence (from Turing to Watson) and simulations. In spring 2011, this course was offered to ten students. There were guest lecturers from different disciplines—African American studies, philosophy, education, biological sciences, psychology, sociology, computer systems technology, entertainment technology, and physics—who offered their perspectives and, as students gradually realized, their biases too. Student assignments involved the integration of insights from disparate disciplines through collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. This communication core course is geared towards second-semester students who may otherwise not be exposed to, for example, physics or sociology in their entire college career. This course is also being considered as a capstone course for seniors. In this way, upper-level students can provide peer support to lower-level students.
Faculty-Centered Component of Interdisciplinary Learning
The objective of the faculty component of City Tech’s interdisciplinary learning prototype is to develop and sustain an interdisciplinary faculty learning community that creates and implements strategies for interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship. Campus-wide interdisciplinary workshops and seminars were conducted. For example, to further encourage and advance an interdisciplinary faculty learning community for teaching and scholarship, a three-part workshop series on creating, implementing, and assessing interdisciplinary STEM projects was conducted by nationally renowned leaders in interdisciplinary learning. These experts not only led the workshops, but also incorporated guided work sessions within the workshops so that the City Tech faculty were given hands-on experience in these three critical areas of interdisciplinary learning. A main focus of the workshops was to assist faculty in developing interdisciplinary projects for both extant and new courses and to formulate effective evaluation processes.
Twenty-five City Tech faculty members participated in these workshops, and from these workshops many cohesive interdisciplinary curricula (like the Weird Science course above) were created and implemented. Additionally, an Interdisciplinary Curriculum Committee for the institution’s School of Arts and Sciences was chartered to provide leadership and comprehensive support for interdisciplinary initiatives, and a survey to gain baseline data on existing campus interdisciplinary activities was implemented and analyzed. The results of the analysis have provided guidance about how to strategically continue to establish interdisciplinary learning at City Tech.
As a result of the intentional interdisciplinary learning experiences we have created, students at City Tech were able to
- recognize disciplinary strengths, processes, limitations, and perspectives;
- purposefully connect and integrate knowledge from across the disciplines to solve problems;
- synthesize and transfer knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, in the context of novel situations;
- be agile, flexible, reflective thinkers who are comfortable with complexity and uncertainty, and can apply their knowledge to respond appropriately and positively;
- understand that other factors—cultural, political, ethical, historical, and economic—must be considered when addressing the complex problems of this century;
- understand the universal nature and deep structure of science, as well as its relationship to other disciplines;
- prepare for future learning as lifelong learners in their careers and as citizens;
- apply their capacity as integrative thinkers to solve problems in ethically and socially responsible ways;
- think critically, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively with others within diverse cultures and communities.
As we begin the second decade of this young century and this young millennium, this nation (if it is to maintain its global competitive edge) needs to seriously contemplate, fund, and implement science initiatives with interdisciplinary underpinnings. In light of energy crises, natural disasters, new diseases, and a plethora of other major concerns that threaten our very survival, a failure to act now could well imperil humanity. This defining period may well be our nation’s second Sputnik moment. May its challenge, therefore, be met with the same vigor, discipline, intentionality, and optimism.
National Academies. 2010. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation in STEM. Carnegie Corporation of New York Press Release. Downloaded on May 24, 2011 from http://carnegie.org/news/grantee-news/story/news-action/single/view/expanding-underrepresented-minority-participation-in-stem
National Mathematics Advisory Panel. 2008. The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Downloaded on June 2, 2011 from www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/mathpanel/report/final-report.pdf.
Reneta D. Lansiquot is an assistant professor of English; Reginald A. Blake is an associate professor of physics and director of the Black Male Initiative Program; Janet Liou-Mark is a professor of mathematics and director of the Honors Scholars Program; A. E. Dreyfuss is a learning specialist—all of New York City College of Technology, CUNY.