Spotlight on Interdisciplinary Learning

“Interdisciplinary” is ubiquitous in higher education for bundling multiple disciplines in a single environment. A growing number of institutions are hitting the sweet spot of interdisciplinarity with a new paradigm of science-based learning spaces that transcend program, pedagogy, and physical space types. Architects play a crucial role in helping institutions create spaces that allow ideas, learning, and interests to converge. Yet designing successful interdisciplinary learning spaces requires a deep understanding of evolving challenges and opportunities.

In the following Q&A, Stan Chiu and Dave Paeper discuss planning higher education spaces for interdisciplinary learning.

Why is interdisciplinary learning so important?

The essence of interdisciplinary learning is integration. The next generation of professionals—whether engineers, scientists, researchers, economists, or business people—will be integrators, bringing diverse ideas, skills, and knowledge together to solve problems. They will provide a pathway to a unified vision that supports an evolving pedagogy for science and research curricula, leverages new technologies and trends in educational design, and empowers students and faculty to cultivate insight and solve problems together.

What are some of the challenges of interdisciplinary environments?

The single greatest barrier to developing any campus space, particularly interdisciplinary spaces, is funding. Leadership is often more comfortable rewarding a known entity, such as proven economically sustainable disciplines. This reinforces a cultural challenge that separates disciplines into silos—competing for space and funding. The design process can support and encourage institutional changes, but it cannot force it. When an institution is fully committed, however, architects can provide powerful tools to create academic environments that support interdisciplinary initiatives.

Architecturally, interdisciplinary research facilities represent the “democratization” of space, where users can assemble their own personal ecosystem in a way that best functions for their work, research, and team. Democratization has an outwardly facing purpose: to put work inside the facility on display and invite in the community, other students, and visitors. Making interdisciplinary education and research transparent has the benefit of increasing recruitment and retaining students, researchers and faculty, as well as expanding the sense of campus-wide ownership.

The complexity of interdisciplinary projects means leadership and architects must sometimes confront non-traditional challenges that come from a sudden change in users, loss of funding, or advent of new technology. The design process can be an invaluable source of both patience and certainty. As the design process creates a solid vision, the solutions used to address difficult challenges can rely on the guiding principles and goals as safeguards for the project trajectory. Keeping the solutions and goals in alignment grounds the project in a common vision in the face of unexpected challenges and creates a foundation to tackle issues head-on. This requires a commitment to ideas, not bricks and mortars.

What does the design process for science-based interdisciplinary projects look like?

An inclusive design process is crucial to addressing institutional goals.

Visioning is the most important step to identify project goals and to define guiding principles. The role of the architect is to guide stakeholders and user groups through workshops, meetings, and visioning sessions through openness and collaboration.

While ensuring all stakeholder voices are heard in the visioning process, an equally important factor is strong institutional leadership. Leadership’s role is to balance power and politics with guidance and collaboration. In this dynamic, architects play a supportive role that continuously drives leadership and stakeholders towards consensus.

Increasingly, the design process blends programming with the design of space, traditionally two separate phases, and has several benefits. It allows for real-time refinement of needs and goals and creates an opportunity to ideate new programming of space. It also provides designers and architects an occasion to challenge a project’s goals, needs and assumptions, which can result in a more effective design solution and enhanced vision for the project.

This Q&A originally was published in College Planning & Management.