Moving from Interdisciplinary Science to Interdisciplinary Learning

By embracing a truly interdisciplinary environment, we can spur collaborative learning and research across non-traditional disciplines and departments.

By Punit Jain January 2, 2020

There is no doubt interdisciplinary science is becoming more popular throughout academia. With new technologies, greater interconnectedness, and incentive grants, there has been no better time to take our established notions of interdisciplinary science and advance the concept even further.

Moving beyond the inclusion of only basic science curriculums in a building by integrating other non-science academic fields within the same building, we encourage students to learn at an entirely new level. By embracing a truly interdisciplinary environment, we can spur collaborative learning and research across non-traditional disciplines and departments.

What Interdisciplinary Science Is Now

Today, designing for interdisciplinary science is often thought of as an integration of the traditional science disciplines — biology, chemistry and physics — within one building through shared and flexible spaces.

Many universities have tried to better integrate non-science fields into academic science facilities through strategies such as including flexible classrooms that any professor at the university can use. While this approach is a good first step, we need to think beyond this baseline to a more advanced interdisciplinary learning environment schematic.

The future of true interdisciplinary learning environments is one that not only invites other departments to share spaces, but also has a deep commitment to integration at every step of the process, from visioning to strategic planning to curriculum.

Integrated Learning Is Evolving. Buildings Need to Do the Same

We know today that students are learning differently than they did even five or 10 years ago. Gen Z, now in colleges and universities, never knew life without social media or immediate access to ubiquitous information. Whether sitting at a café, relaxing on the campus quad, or studying in a classroom, they constantly interact with information, building their knowledge base and honing skills and abilities to become well-rounded individuals able to respond to multiple streams of information in thoughtful ways. After academia, employers are looking for candidates with many different skills and assets and the flexibility to adapt.

Designing buildings for true interdisciplinary learning encourages the exploration of broad challenges and concepts that span past the basic sciences. Why not teach students in environments that best encourage this type of learning?

What the Future Interdisciplinary Learning Environment Can Be

Interdisciplinary learning environments benefit universities in two ways. First, they encourage students already interested in the sciences to more easily integrate with other disciplines, such as language, arts, social science, and more, to which they have never been exposed. Second, such environments bring non-science-focused students closer to the research and learning spaces where science can be seen in action. These non-science students have opportunities to learn more science-related topics through different lenses that may be less intimidating and more encouraging. Both of these strategies produce the next generation of innovators and thinkers that the world needs to solve today’s imminent global and societal challenges.

The existing notion of a “science building” must be questioned at the college and university level. Provosts, deans and faculty should look past this label and challenge themselves to consider the elements required to set the stage for true interdisciplinary learning for their students.

We need to promote the idea of interdisciplinary learning beyond the integration of basic science disciplines and consider the intentional integration of more diverse academic fields.

Design Strategies for the Future Interdisciplinary Learning Environment

The process begins with strategic planning at the institutional level, followed by the creation of a curriculum that encourages multidisciplinary learning. With this goal in mind, the building composition must give attention to all types of learning spaces, which, as stated earlier, happens everywhere – both inside and outside instructional areas. The building program of spaces should be conceived and organized for flexibility based on function and not discipline or department. Spaces should be sized so that they are adaptable and interchangeable as program needs change – daily, from one semester to the next, or over the life of the building. Simply put: An interdisciplinary building should include some personal spaces (offices), more learning spaces (classrooms and laboratories), and a good proportion of interaction to collaboration spaces, both formal (conference rooms) and informal (cafés).

The foundation of a successful interdisciplinary learning environment is a program of balanced spaces. The intention to be flexible and to “mix it up” should continue as we touch pen to paper. Locating different types of spaces throughout the building encourages and supports collaboration. A cluster of spaces that includes learning laboratories, classrooms, research environments, and personal spaces with collaboration spaces will promote holistic thinking. In this environment, a student may take a biochemistry lab in one room in the morning and a creative writing class in the afternoon in an adjacent room while running into another student or faculty member conducting research on plant ecology or genetics.

The task is not complete until care is taken to design each of these spaces to support multiple uses for multiple disciplines. For example, equip a learning laboratory with technology to support a prelab lecture, or design a classroom, large enough to support team- and problem-based learning, where both languages and data science are taught using laptops from a cart. Collaboration spaces should be outfitted to promote learning with appropriate furniture, technology and writing surfaces to solve a differential equation with a peer or a faculty member, while also being able to play a video game with friends to decompress. Both formal and informal spaces must support collaboration.

To meet the expectations of current and future learners, a common goal should be to design spaces that are environmentally responsible with an emphasis on daylight, views to the outside, transparency into the spaces from interior hallways, thermal comfort, and material selections that do not harm the planet or human health.

This article originally appeared on CannonDesign’s website. CannonDesign is a CFE Media content partner. 

Original content can be found at