Graduate School boosts cross-department programs

The school created the Interdisciplinary Commons this year to give students a space to collaborate.

Christopher Aadland

A group of graduate students from academic fields across the University of Minnesota gathers twice a month in the Nolte Center with the aim of collaborating with people from outside their departments.

Many people who study multiple subjects say this interdisciplinary work can be tough to do.

However, the Graduate School has this year expanded its resources for doing so through programs like the Interdisciplinary Commons, with a goal to increase the pool of students studying across disciplines.

“There’s been a lot of concern of ‘How do we create incentives, and how do we remove barriers to make interdisciplinary work more effective and more possible?’” said Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, which conducts health-related interdisciplinary research. 

The Graduate School created the Interdisciplinary Commons because students didn’t have a space to do their cross-departmental work, said Vicki Field, director of the Graduate School’s Office of Interdisciplinary Initiatives.

The new program offers resources like research feedback and guest speakers for students interested in interdisciplinary work.

The program is on a trial basis for this year, Field said, and will continue if the Graduate School includes funding for it in the budget request this spring.

The school requested and received an $80,000 allocation to support interdisciplinary work for this year, which included funds for the commons, she said.

The allocation is also funding interdisciplinary graduate group competitions, which award groups of students, faculty and staff members with similar interdisciplinary interests between $3,000 and $12,000 to tackle a cross-field question, Field said.

Nicole Scott, a doctoral student who studies cognitive science, said working across disciplines with other students and faculty members helps develop fresh approaches to projects and research.

“Getting your hands on as much information as possible and getting to know as many people as possible –– that’s what interdisciplinarity is all about,” she said. “You never know what kinds of projects you’ll come up with.”

Interdisciplinary work is also essential to solving complex global challenges, Field said.

The University’s strategic plan released this fall highlights the need to increase interdisciplinary work in order to solve issues like food security and climate change.

“The whole idea of global challenges really speaks to the importance of not only interdisciplinary education but research,” Kreitzer said.

Cross-field work is also an emerging trend in higher education, Field said.

More than 60 percent of students expressed interest in participating in interdisciplinary work in a 2013 Graduate School interdisciplinary interests survey.

But meeting that demand requires resources.

While interdisciplinary initiatives like the commons have funds through this year, Field said it may be a challenge to secure future funding.

The growth of the commons center and other interdisciplinary initiatives depends on how much money the Graduate School funnels into that type of work, she said.

“I think depending on the success of our initiatives this year … that experience will help create a request for funding,” Field said.