Offering more interdisciplinary classes

Photo by Tyler Meuter

In my capstone class, my professor often notes that one of the main complaints that she hears about graduated Tech students is that we are brilliant individually but have trouble succeeding in environments requiring group work. This is particularly true when it comes to groups where students are required to work with those with different skills and knowledge.

Workplaces are becoming increasingly diverse due to a growing number of studies that prove heterogeneous teams  work smarter. As a result, companies are making a noted effort to facilitate environments where employees come from all walks of life ­— hiring more women, minorities and those differing in skill sets.

The current Tech curriculum does not reflect an authentic work environment. We rarely interact with students of other majors in an academic environment, let alone working together in a group project environment. Students often comment that they never see their freshmen year friends or anyone outside their majors after core classes finish. While this statement may be on the hyperbolic side, it holds some truth. With the exception of certain free elective or humanity requirement classes, students  are often never in a mixed class again.

The lack of opportunity to observe other students’ processes or skills promotes elitist groupthink on campus. It is commonly seen in engineering students, and it undercuts an appreciation for many of the other majors on campus such as the design skills of Architecture students and the marketing skills of a Business Administration student. While students will protest that ribbing on their fellow students is done in jest, the underlying culture of prejudice remains.

It can be argued that if a student wishes to work with a diverse group of students he or she can pick up a minor or participate in the little known Create-X program, where students create their own major. Students in the Technology & Management minor program also work in interdisciplinary project-based classes with other engineers.

However, the issue is not that individual students are unable to develop their skills, but rather a lack of academic opportunities for students to work with others who have a completely different set of skills than their own. Additionally, only a small subset of Tech students participate in these programs.

There are several Tech supported extracurricular activities or facilities, such as Start-up Exchange and InVenture, that encourage students to work on projects with students from different majors. On the research-side, there are the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) and Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) programs. However, students have to seek out these opportunities, with the later two programs more focused on building student-faculty and faculty-to-faculty relationships.

Admittedly, Tech is starting to move in the direction of more non-exclusive mixed project-based classes by offering ID and ME mixed senior design ME 4182; LMC, IE and CS mixed-group based Interface Design class CS 3750; and the CHE, EE and BA mixed Introduction to the Microelectronics and Nanotechnology Revolution COE 3002. The Grand Challenges program also encourages students of all different majors to work together different projects. These programs have been successful with participating students extolling  praises.

“As an engineer you think about something super logically and very mathematically — you got to have steps. You have different ideas and different concepts from an ID major, so I think it is really cool to see their opinions and how they go through a project process versus ours and just meshing it all together,” said Sebastian Lee, fifth-year ME, a participant in ME 4182.

“You have collaborate together to make projects that your clients want and functions through the ME eyes of it and the ID visualization and aesthetics of it.”

Alex Berry, fourth-year IE taking CS 3750 similarly noted, “We are building a Pinterest extension. I am doing project management and optimization, whereas the other two [CS and LMC students] are bringing their code background and LMC aesthetics.”

In spite of these classes, we are still ways away from other STEM-focused universities such as Carnegie Mellon University’s Integrative Design, Arts and Technology Network (IDeATe) program. IDeATE offers all students eight undergraduate concentration and minors on new creative industry themes: game design, animation and special effects, media design, sound design, learning media design, entrepreneurship for creative industries, intelligent environments, and physical computing. These concentrations merge technology with design similar to Tech’s Computational Media program, which cannot be taken as a minor, unfortunately.

In the real world, we are not going to just work with people with the same background and knowledge. We will have team members and co-workers from all different majors, have completely different skills and  come from varying backgrounds. To ensure graduates will be better prepared to work in industry, Tech needs to start facilitating more classes that provide this environment and require more students to participate.