Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Undergraduate Mathematics Departments: Bridging and Dissolving Disciplinary Barriers

February 22, 2006

Among the challenges raised in the contemporary calls to action captured in the PKAL Report on Reports II, 2006 is the need for the world in which science is learned to reflect the world in which students will live and work upon graduation. For departmental leaders, one way to respond to this challenge means tackling the hard work of dissolving barriers that isolate disciplinary communities and building bridges that connect them, helping faculty make the kind of connections they hope their students can make.

The report from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics (CUPM) speaks to the need to prepare students majoring in partner disciplines, with a major recommendation to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. This recommendation was heavily influenced by the findings of the MAA Curriculum Foundations project, whose report is published in The Curriculum Foundations Project: Voices of the Partner Disciplines. In their words:

Strategies for initiating productive conversations with faculty in partner disciplines to foster such changes include:
  1. visiting the courses of colleagues in partner disciplines, and discussing observations
  2. requiring a writing component within existing mathematics courses, and using this requirement as an opportunity to work with technical writing faculty
  3. inviting colleagues in partner disciplines to discuss curricular issues over lunch or at department social gatherings
  4. expanding the boundaries of faculty research to encourage collaboration with partner disciplines.

Another major report from MAA, Math and Bio 2010, (Lynn Arthur Steen, editor) extends discussions about cross-disciplinary connections. It "envisages a new educational paradigm in which the disciplines of mathematics and biology, curricularly quite separate, will be productively linked in the undergraduate science programs of the 21st century." A major catalyst for this MAA report was the publication of the NRC report, Bio 2010 (also included in the PKAL Report on Reports, II 2006). It recognizes that "for most colleges and universities, an interdisciplinary approach to basic science education is more like a contradiction than a tautology. Interdisciplinary work is the exception, not the rule, and where it does occur it is most often at the end of a major where it has to fight against already fortified disciplinary silos."

In the essay Building the Renaissance Team, the argument is made that students need to learn to function in a world without disciplinary boundaries, suggesting

...that in all courses faculty should highlight relationships with other disciplines more than the distinctiveness of their own fields, and that from their earliest encounter with science, students should work in teams on projects that require cross-disciplinary skills. The benefits of shared knowledge, cross-field communication skills, and effective teamwork will serve students well as they move into graduate and professional positions where such experiences are becoming the norm.

Illustrations of how to focus on student learning, preparing students for life beyond the campus are presented in Math and Bio 2010 from a wide range of colleges representing the Project Kaleidoscope community. For example:

Seattle Central Community College's course, Six Billion People and Counting, "puts...mathematics and science together the way they are supposed to be. In this course, mathematics is one of the languages of science, expressing the amount of lead in drinking water in quantitative terms. In this course, mathematics is the tool of science, forecasting how often giant oil spills take place. In this course, mathematics is used to understand environmental issues and problems, and help devise solutions that are based in reality, not appearance." It combines introductory environmental science and college level mathematics in a concentrated learning experiences that engage students in projects based on real ecological and environmental data and problems.

At the University of Redlands, students have the "opportunity to work as part of a team on interdisciplinary projects that link mathematics to problems in environmental and life sciences, economics, and other areas” through their program of Mathematical Consulting. Students have undertaken projects such as an analysis of bird count data supplied by the local Audubon Society and research with a member of the faculty concerning fish populations in the local mountains, and assisting faculty research in drawing inferences from aerial imaging in studies of vegetation."