Navigating and Addressing Institutional Barriers to Transdisciplinary Learning

Greg Strimel
Assistant Professor
Purdue University - West Lafayette, IN

Need:To date, many strategies have been tried to transform undergraduate learning to better prepare students for the future of work/learning and enhance access to, and the value of, higher education. But today, universities remain structurally challenged to implement adequate widespread evidence-based and transdisciplinary practices. More specifically, undergraduate learning continues to be siloed within individual colleges and departments. This situation can leave many students without vital, formalized transdisciplinary educational environments that are authentic to real societal challenges requiring innovation. To address these concerns, a National Science Foundation I-USE project team is working toward developing a transformed, authentically transdisciplinary, and scalable educational model for undergraduate learning focused on democratizing the practice of innovation. To achieve this task, the project team is testing and refining a model to guide the transformation of traditional undergraduate learning experiences to span academics silos. This educational model involves a) co-teaching and co-learning from faculty and students across different academic units/colleges as well as b) learning experiences spanning multiple semesters that immerse students in a community that can nourish both their learning and innovative ideas. The main goal of the project is to employ a design-based research approach to co-design and implement the educational model with faculty across multiple colleges while identifying and addressing the institutional barriers to a transformative learning experience.Guiding Question:Holistically, this project seeks to address the question of “how, and in what ways, can learning be transformed to span across disciplines to foster innovation-capabilities of diverse learners?” Our central hypothesis is that a cross-college approach to educational transformation, one that centers on democratizing the practice of innovation across campus boundaries, will effectively prepare next generation innovators; and, that the current need for rapid/profound changes in higher education make conditions favorable for institutional transformation. Specific attention is focused on examining ways in which to work/teach across college boundaries.Outcomes:The data collected through this project have highlighted the potential value of cross-college, or transdisciplinary approaches to teaching, specifically regarding the practices of innovation with an emphasis on the understanding of problems and the people who face them. However, as was found in this project, making headway for broader changes to undergraduate education in this transdisciplinary manner is challenging (e.g., scheduling courses across academic units, course ownership, faculty credit, and the academic traditions from individual units regarding curriculum approvals, course types, and grading policies).Broader Impacts:The work embedded in this project will yield key insights and purposeful next steps that universities can take to develop, implement, and assess new ways to teach the art of innovation while addressing institutional barriers to bring authentic learning to the broader campus community and beyond. Our transferrable and scalable model will include a co-learning sequence, a co-teaching method, student exemplars, and research results describing institutional transformation efforts. It is the researchers’ hopes that these approaches and the information from this ongoing research can be beneficial for universities seeking to scale transdisciplinary programs and ultimately help enhance the value of higher education for students and society.


Sherylyn Briller, Purdue University; Douglas Pruim, Purdue University; Todd Kelley, Purdue University; Jung Joo Sohn; Rebecca Martinez, Purdue University; Jackson Otto, Purdue University