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The Interdisciplinary Learning Environment: “Nurturing the Spark”

One way in which our country succeeds on the world stage is our ability to think creatively. Higher education is fostering that creativity through interdisciplinary environments. These multi-/interdisciplinary learning environments are one of the keys to nurturing potential “sparks” that can lead to ground-breaking ideas and creative efforts for our future.

Over the past three decades, I have seen the evolution of the interdisciplinary learning environment move from being an alternative learning approach to one that has become a highly sought after learning model across higher education. My first experience with interdisciplinary learning environments was with Earlham College, where I was involved in designing their Landrum Bolling Center for Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. I've been able to apply those lessons I've learned to other opportunities in school design, community building design, and entrepreneurial innovation centers. The interdisciplinary approach is now highly valued throughout higher education, especially in the sciences where competition for the newest advances in creative thinking and concrete results can pay big dividends. In developing Earlham’s Interdisciplinary Social Sciences building, they understood that integration rather than segregation was key in promoting the type of thinking that would serve the future. No longer would the traditional arrangement of classroom wings be separate from office wings, which were typically separate from student support areas. Instead, classrooms, seminar rooms, labs, professor offices, departmental offices, and student areas would be intermingled amongst each other, as opposed to traditional physical separation of departmentalized subject areas. Earlham understood that, if the proximity of an office for a history professor was next to the program office for economics there would be more chance meetings between members of these disciplines. More chance meetings would lead to more shared conversation, which would lead to sharing and learning across disciplines and support the opportunity for more ‘a-ha’ creative moments. If groupings of professor offices were located amongst smaller groupings of classrooms or lab spaces, there would be more opportunity for an overlap in time and space between teacher and student. One cannot force such an exchange, but one can nurture an opportunity for exchange in how the physical environment is planned.

Earlham further recognized that, if informal exchanges were to be nurtured, they truly needed to support it with resources. This meant programming physical space to support where students or professors might pause or park themselves between classes or while waiting to visit with another. In working with Earlham through the early phases of the design process, we programmed space for informal seating areas, niches, and classroom surge areas. These were to be interspersed along the primary circulation routes to capitalize on passing exchanges. While a traditional classroom building may have a circulation space factor of 30% of the total building, Earlham’s Interdisciplinary Social Sciences building has a circulation factor closer to 38%. This can be challenging to building budgets, especially as funding sources and business models start to direct institutions of higher learning, until one realizes we cannot compromise on nurturing our creative place in the world. I believe nurturing the edges and overlaps between disciplines is where the opportunities for new discoveries and new thinking has the greatest potential to advance our place in the sciences. Interdisciplinary learning environments and the exploration of the edges and overlaps between disciplines may be what keeps us forefront in being the creatives of this world…and beyond!


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