The Future of the Interdisciplinary Institution

Puzzle pieces image future of interdisciplinary institution

Wondering how interdisciplinary education will affect the higher education sector? We sat down with the Tmrw Institute’s Director, Carla Aerts, to find out.  

As Director of the Tmrw Institute, Carla Aerts is passionate about connecting education and tech communities, ensuring that edtech fulfills its promise of extending quality education to every child in the world. 

Carla will be participating in the 2019 Wharton-QS Reimagine Education conference, discussing the future of the interdisciplinary institution. We recently spoke to Carla about how she thinks interdisciplinary education will impact the higher education space, and the potential benefits that might be derived from this shift.  

How have you seen interdisciplinary institutions evolve in recent years?  

Carla: It’s clear that more universities are offering interdisciplinary degrees. However, not all of them offer true or full interdisciplinary models. For example, they often seek to keep interdisciplinarity across the sciences, creating new interdisciplinary courses in disciplines such as nanoscience or mathematical bioscience. 

In many cases, interdisciplinarity kicks in at post-graduate level and where it exists at graduate level (also in the US) the interdisciplinarity tends to reside in highly related disciplines e.g. humanities, liberal arts, or science, not often extending beyond these silos. 

The true cross-fertilization of disciplines is not really tackled by many universities and while University College London (UCL) developed a highly successful Bachelor of Arts and Sciences program, which combined the liberal arts and sciences in programs that allowed students to pick and mix subjects of their choice, this program is certainly rather leading edge in the UK.   

Interdisciplinarity is fundamentally recognized in universities, especially in post-graduate and research-based programs, yet in such cases the interdisciplinarity doesn’t tend to cross the liberal arts and sciences divide.   

It took an institution such as UCL, followed by the University of Manchester, the University of Glasgow, and a few others, to develop this approach. 

In the UK, this is now being taken further by the newly founded London Interdisciplinary School. In the US, Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) is somewhat of a front-runner, as it also uses project-based learning and a practice-based approach. 

The idea is gaining traction within related disciplines, breaking open silos with organizations such as UCL and Minerva driving this at the undergraduate level and the London Interdisciplinary School set to make serious inroads in 2020-21. What is clear is that the world needs this and that interest is not lacking. 

Why do you think more and more institutions are adopting interdisciplinary practices?  

Carla: The challenges the world is dealing with, and will increasingly be facing, are too inter-related and present a kind of ’neural network’ of complexities. 

This can no longer be tackled by single-domain expertise without understanding the bigger picture and how different disciplines will need to be utilized to solve these challenges.  

For example, the question of whether we should embrace nuclear to slow down climate change presents an interdisciplinary challenge that can’t be resolved by nuclear physics experts alone. We need to examine the threat of water shortages, geo-economics, climate prediction, understanding water resources and modelling, how climate affects water supply, and rising sea levels and potentially drying river beds 

These only represent a fragment of the questionsconnected challenges, and interdependencies that come into play. This highlights the need for non-siloed thinking and interdisciplinary mindsets. 

What are the pros and cons of setting up dedicated interdisciplinary departments like those at the University of Glasgow and the University of Manchester?  

Carla: People often worry about the lack of expertise and the master of none perception that is tied to such programs. What they forget is that while vertical domain expertise may still be required without having skilled people who are able to venture beyond, today’s world won’t be able to address its challenges, innovation requirements, and technological and scientific evolutions 

The only con would be if the interdisciplinary department didn’t have a conduit to the outside world, which would allow students to engage with outside opportunities that would benefit from their interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. 

This also empowers students to engage with the workplace, industry sectors, policy, and education. Such departments must evolve with the needs of the world and the interests that students wish to see manifested in them. Multicultural appreciation should also feature in such programs, given that we live in a global world. 

Such departments, if developed with openness in mind, can only be of benefit to other programs, students, and their futures employers, as well as the organizations that will emerge from a more interdisciplinary way of looking at the world. 

What is the relationship between interdisciplinary education and graduate employability? How do you think one informs the other?  

Carla: Its likely that employers will increasingly look at students who can display an interdisciplinary aptitude. Employers are already expressing the need for these skill sets.  

Equally, interdisciplinary aptitude and insight will provide ideal launch-pads for new startups or entrepreneurial initiatives. The connection between employability and interdisciplinarity is set to become more prominent. 

How do you see interdisciplinary education evolving in the future?  

Carla: I can see more institutions engaging with it and developing their own programs and can see it taking a prominent place in lifelong learning as people progress throughout their careers. I’m waiting anxiously for the first interdisciplinary online short programs. 

Carla Aerts – alongside other world-leading educational experts – will be participating in the 2019 Wharton-QS Reimagine Education Awards and Conference – ‘the Oscars of Education’ – from the 8-10 December 2019 in London. Register now to join more than 600 educational innovators and decision makers from universities and edtech alike at this global conference.  


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