Interdisciplinarity at the course level: How strong is your “theme”? – Gavin Porter

Interdisciplinarity “promises to deliver us from the stagnation of limited disciplinary understandings, and usher in a new age of tolerance and productivity” (Janz, 1994). In research, one can point to great discoveries at the interface of two disciplines (biology and computer science, physics and chemistry, many more…), and research institutes are eager to embrace interdisciplinarity as a mission statement and mantra. In education, it seems every teacher and student wants to say that their course, program, or degree employs interdisciplinary approaches, as it sounds quite noble and engaged. One can even major in interdisciplinary studies at a number of universities. The desire for interdisciplinarity is strong enough that the term runs the risk of becoming another academic buzzword, like constructivism or critical thinking, where many people emphasize its importance, but few can provide an operational definition or practical advice. Surely there are pitfalls to interdisciplinarity — what are the pitfalls at a course level? How can teachers make an adjustment to address the largest of the pitfalls?

Pitfalls of interdisciplinarity… weak themes

Are you engaging in interdisciplinarity for interdisciplinarity’s sake in a course, without providing a rationale to either students or teachers? Do you have a unifying theme to tie together interdisciplinary elements in your course? What is that theme?

An example of a weak theme, would be “science”, because it is too broad. Instructors of individual disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, earth science) in an interdisciplinary science course may need constant prodding to make connections to the other fields, and their own experience at the interface of disciplines may be limited. New teachers will be concerned primarily about their disciplinary contribution to a team taught course, so connections with other disciplines tend to take a back seat. What can result is a grab bag of one or two random interdisciplinary connections every few weeks or so. It’s difficult to identify a benchmark where an appropriate amount of interdisciplinarity has been reached. Furthermore, good interdisciplinary science textbooks are hard to find as they tend to leave at least one group disappointed by a surface treatment of their field. It is impossible for the authors to have specialized in everything. An interdisciplinary text may refer to a “return to the integrated question” in each chapter, but the questions rarely bridge more than one discipline, and the reader is left wondering what precisely is being “integrated” (Trefil & Hazen, 2013). Attempts at interdisciplinary questions on a final exam can seem like something that is tacked on at the end as a last attempt to show that indeed, one has remembered to construct an interdisciplinary course.

Stronger themes…

In contrast to the breadth of “science” as a unifier for an interdisciplinary course, one can look to more specific, engaging approaches. I can point to examples from Harvard Professors Xiao-Li Meng and Robert Lue, whom we were fortunate to receive for an HKU Science Faculty pedagogy seminar, and also to several examples from my involvement in HKU’s Common Core.

Many people have had bad experiences as a student in their math or science classes –- material that doesn’t resonate with them, excessive focus on theory as opposed to applications, and uncertainty as to what potential applications might be. Election results, chocolate, wine, strength of legal evidence, strategies for romance — these are much more engaging and accessible issues for college students. Why not use these as a scaffold to teach students about Statistical Interference, Simpson’s paradox, Decision theory, and many other topics in mathematics and statistics? This is precisely what Prof. Xiao-Li Meng and his team at Harvard’s Statistics department have done (Meng, 2009). Question: You just met someone, and are initially interested. Are you more likely to maintain/increase interest in the person if he/she plays hard-to-get, or if he/she is obvious about being into you? A dive into dating site data and key statistical and data mining principles can ensue. Students have this underlying question to motivate them through the investigation of challenging math content (and they have something interesting to share with their friends after class…). More examples and topic coverage charts are available online1, 2.

Every student has likely taken a drug for something as routine as a headache. They are likely to continue taking drugs for various health issues in the future. How are the drugs designed (chemistry) and how do they affect the body (biology, pharmacology, physiology)? This is an ideal scaffold to engage students at the interface of the biology and chemistry. Prof. Robert Lue and colleagues have leveraged this and other effective interdisciplinary themes when they re-structured the introductory life science curriculum at Harvard3.

This “theme strength” issue also relates back to HKU’s Common Core. I have taken advantage of strong themes to trick students into learning more advanced biology than they are likely expecting in an introductory course open to all majors. The course on the Science of the mind-body-health relationship (CCST9046)4, could just as easily be called integrative physiology, but with the latter title, it would probably be dismissed by the Common Core curriculum committee as being too advanced, belonging instead to a departmental offering (…and rejected handily). The course includes stress (many students have just gone through the crucible of the HKDSE or Gao Kao university entrance exams…they know what stress is!!!!!!), brain architecture and behavior (biochemical basis of monogamy…again tapping into love interests of late teens…), and the placebo effect as key themes to gain and hold student attention. If I took physiology, neuroscience, and biochemistry in a piece-meal approach, students would quickly tire of details without a readily identifiable scaffold and end-point for the knowledge gained. We devote lecture time to predicting experimental results and can re-create some interesting experiments using student feedback. Some small samples from the class are available for consumption through an upcoming MOOC on University Teaching5, produced by the HKU Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.

The Coffee, Cigarettes, and Alcohol course (CCST9052)6, could just as easily be titled Essentials of pharmacology and metabolism. That title would likely drive down enrolment numbers and intrigue, right from the start. Essentials of metabolism are, unfortunately, not engaging for the majority of 18 year olds, particularly those coming from non-science majors. The biological basis for addiction, and societal, pharmacological, and public health aspects of coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol, are much more engaging. It’s naturally interdisciplinary. On the very first day of class, we tackle the “Asian flush” reaction to alcohol, but we dive deep!!! We use Asian flush as a jumping off point for examining single nucleotide polymorphisms and sequence-structure-function relationships in enzymes. Students feel proud that they can grasp such information, and they have something interesting to share with their friends later on at the pub.

These strong theme examples have also made it relatively easy to recruit collaborators. In the past, the Mind-Body course has involved faculty wearing multiple hats — from Science, Family Medicine, Pathology, and the Centre for Humanities and Medicine. The Coffee, Cigarettes, and Alcohol course involves faculty with Science, Epidemiology, and the Food and Nutrition program connections.

There will be an even more encompassing CC course starting in the fall of 2017, which has the very strong and specific theme of Suicide. This course will involve input from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research, Faculty of Science, Forensic Pathology, Social Work, Sociology, and Psychology, in addition to a variety of professional guest speakers. It’s a vitally important issue, so people are eager to donate their time and expertise.

Looking towards the future, Prof. Meng’s students are going to eat chocolate and (hopefully) vote in elections after their statistics course is done. Prof. Lue’s students are going to take aspirin for their occasional headaches. My students are probably going to feel some work or family stress at some point in the future. They may enjoy a cup of coffee. These real-life events are constant reminders for course material and key principles (…..this caffeine is blocking my adenosine receptors). Hopefully, these courses will function like an “earworm” song — difficult for people to get out of their heads, because they are constantly revisiting the material in daily life. Looking at the Common Core course offerings, it appears that many teachers have taken up a strong and specific theme approach, and many have commented that it has also affected their other departmental-based disciplinary teaching in a positive way.

To paraphrase the great acting teacher Stella Adler: the talent is in the choice. Moving forward, how will you engage your students across disciplines with intriguing course theme choices?


Collaborators in the CCST9046 and CCST9052 courses: Dr. Julie Chen, the late Prof. LC Chan, Dr. June Leung, and Dr. Jetty Lee


  • Janz, B. (1994). Review of Julie Thompson Klein, Interdisciplinarity: History, theory, and practice. Dianoia, 3(2), 138-140.
  • Trefil, J.S., & Hazen, R.M. (2013). The Sciences: An Integrated Approach. 7th ed. New York, NY:John Wiley & Sons.
  • Meng, X.-L. (2009). Statistics: Your chance for happiness (or misery). The Harvard University Undergraduate Research Journal, 2(1), 21-27.


Dr. Gavin Porter
Dr. Gavin Porter

Faculty of Science
The University of Hong Kong

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