From the Field: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research

The 2005 report, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (IDR), from the National Academy of Sciences sets forth key conditions for effective interdisciplinary research. Many of these are also essential conditions to realize spaces that facilitate interdisciplinary learning and research. To paraphrase (p 21):

  • At the initial stage, there has to be recognition that there are common problems to solve.

Then, the process involves building bridges in many different ways, including attention to process and to people:

  • There must be an environment that encourages collaboration in the process of building bridges, with visible support and nudging from campus leadership.
  • There must intention to establish a team philosophy.
  • There must be seed/glue money available to support the process and the people involved in the planning.
  • There must be frequent meetings engaging team members, internal seminars to foster bridges within the campus community, and opportunities to learn from and work with peers beyond their community.
  • The most important bridge is to think of the end at the beginning.


Supporting the evolution of the process and project requires:

  • The willingness to take risks.
  • The recognition of the potential for high impact.
  • Facilities that enable:
    • The physical co-location of researchers
    • Shared instrumentation
    • Enhanced chance meetings between researchers.

The report sets forth powerful drivers for attention to interdisciplinary research that can be adopted as drivers for facilitating interdisciplinary STEM learning in the undergraduate environment. These include the increasing and inherent complexity of nature and society, the need to solve society problems and the stimulus of generative technologies.

Over the past decade, since this report was published, a growing number of reports document the urgency of such drivers, delving more deeply into why and how the concept of interdisciplinary itself has become more complex—with terms such as team science, transdisciplinary and convergence  (Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond [2014]) beginning to shape mental images of how science and engineering beyond the classroom is being practiced. This becomes a challenge to those responsible for undergraduate STEM learning spaces as they begin to think of the end at the beginning.

This quote from the IDR report can be taken as inspiration and guide for planners as well as a description of the kind of experiences that undergraduates will have in spaces intentionally designed to facilitate interdisciplinary learning:

"At the heart of interdisciplinarity is communication— the conversations, connections, and combinations that bring new insights to virtually every kind of scientist and engineer.”