Creating a cross-disciplinary course in sustainability: 5 Questions with David Szymanski and Rick Oches, Bentley University

The module “Will Corn Ethanol Fuel U.S. Energy Needs?” is the result of collaboration between Bentley University faculty in the natural sciences, economics, political science, and accounting departments that took place during a two-week summer workshop. The module provides students in a number of different courses with a brief introduction to ethanol and the ethanol industry in its full complexity.

Students use U.S. Department of Agricultural crop and production data – more than 500 total data points – to plot the change in variables over time. Later, they hypothesize about their relationships to broader agricultural, scientific, economic, and political forces. .  Instructors then contextualize core concepts from their own courses (e.g. Environmental Chemistry, American Government, Microeconomics) to help students gain perspective on a complex, multidisciplinary problem.

I recently had the chance to speak with David Szymanski and Rick Oches from the Department of Natural & Applied Sciences at Bentley University about this innovative course.

1. Why did you decide to start this cross-course module?

This module grew out of our work on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in the Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program. In the first summer workshop funded by the grant, we brought together faculty from different natural science disciplines to develop technology-enhanced laboratory and classroom modules that apply basic science concepts to real-world problems. Although most Bentley students major in business-related disciplines, part of our core mission is to integrate the liberal arts and sciences with the business curriculum. By teaching basic scientific concepts in the context of real-world problems, we are attempting to show students the importance of scientific literacy to business and society, as well as to their personal lives.

In the second round of workshops, we decided that those concepts extended to even larger multidisciplinary problems of sustainability, which are inextricably linked to other fields, like political science and economics. Because there are pedagogic challenges to teaching such interdisciplinary topics related to sustainability, which require individual faculty to teach well beyond their areas of expertise, and institutional barriers commonly limit opportunities for cross-disciplinary team-teaching, we recruited faculty from several disciplines to develop a cross-course module to overcome some of those challenges.

2. How did you go about creating it?

Before starting the workshop, we asked faculty members to consider issues of sustainability that crossed the boundaries of their respective fields. During the first few days of the workshop, we discussed those examples and described to one another where we saw significant overlap. We set goals and objectives for student learning as a group and decided that the “problem” of corn ethanol as an alternative fuel in the U.S. would allow us to highlight core concepts in our respective courses, while still allowing us to “connect the dots” across the curriculum. As a team, we worked to design, test and refine the common exercise during the remainder of the two-week workshop.

3. What were some of the challenges and how did you overcome them?

The first challenge was finding the right faculty members to take part in the workshop.  In order to form a successful team, you need faculty that are not only motivated to teach at the boundaries of their disciplines, but they must also be willing to try new pedagogies to teach about inherently messy interdisciplinary problems. We found a number of them who were willing to do both, even though they were apprehensive about the outcome or their abilities to contribute. Another issue expressed by some participants was the concern that some material must be cut from their course in order to accommodate the new activity. After some reassurance and discussion at the start of the workshop, we found that enthusiasm quickly dispelled the apprehension and we had a remarkably competent team.

Another major and ongoing challenge is assessment of student learning. In the first year of employing the module, we used an essay-based pre/post test to see how well students were making connections among the disciplines and how well they could apply those ideas to concepts like unintended consequences. In a preliminary review of the results, we’re seeing that students do gain content knowledge, but it’s not apparent that they can effectively describe the complex web of connections between science, policy, economics, etc. Although the results may mean the module is not having as large of an impact as we’d like, it’s equally possible that students don’t understand our assessment questions completely – how do you ask a student to describe the complexity of an issue in terms of different disciplines? Since the questions are necessarily complex, there may also be an issue of student fatigue with the assessment essay format. We’re still working on overcoming this challenge.

4. What have been some of your successes? How has the module been received?

There has been significant interest in the module by many faculty members outside of the core group that designed it and by faculty at other institutions. After running a teaching workshop on sustainability this past spring, where we introduced a broader group of faculty to the exercise, we’ve had excellent discussions on how to expand the reach of our work further, involving faculty from other business and arts and science disciplines.  Anecdotally, students have responded well to the module and seem to like the multidisciplinary aspects and the “current-events” relevance of the complex problem.

5. What are your plans/hopes for the programme moving forward and what advice would you give to other schools thinking of creating a similar module?

We plan to expand the core group of faculty employing the module in the coming year after making some enhancements to the module and the assessment tools. Ideally, we would like to encourage the business and the arts and science faculties to work more closely together on these types of modules that contextualize issues of sustainability across the curriculum.

In terms of advice, find a way to incentivize faculty to take a large block of time for curriculum development and leave plenty of time for philosophical discussions. Have the group that creates the module set goals and objectives for student learning; this helps guide the curriculum development when the topic is a broad and complex issue. Last but not least, expect difficulties in developing summative assessments of student learning.


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