By Mike Lehman
The terms “interdisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary collaboration” are used frequently across academic institutions. A quick Google search results in over 100,000 uses of these terms in relation to Georgia Tech specifically. In our teaching, grant applications, and individual research, offering some form of cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary angle has nearly become a necessity. In fact, Georgia Tech has 10 interdisciplinary research institutes across all six colleges that help scholars and researchers collaborate with partners outside of the institute.
The idea of interdisciplinarity and its importance to successful and innovative research has steadily increased from the 1950s, becoming a common phrase in academic books from the 1970s to the 2020s. Yet, the term “interdisciplinary collaborations” has seen a significant uptick in usage in the last two decades, with a sharp upward yield over the previous ten years. While it is an integral part of our work both inside and outside academia, it’s often difficult to decode how to best implement and complete interdisciplinary collaborations.
Georgia Tech’s Effective Team Dynamics Initiative (ETDI) offers workshops for students and faculty to help them thrive in their interdisciplinary collaborations. But what exactly is interdisciplinary collaboration, and how can we successfully create effective team dynamics within these collaborations?
This article discusses successful interdisciplinary collaboration, the benefits of interdisciplinary work, and effective collaboration strategies.
What Is Interdisciplinary Collaboration?
In short, interdisciplinary collaboration happens when people from different disciplines work together to complete a project. What is unique about interdisciplinary collaboration is that it moves people away from working in isolation toward a collaborative process from inception to completion. Each team member brings their unique methods and ideas to the project, which is especially important when moving academic work and research out into the world.
For example, Georgia Tech recently announced the launch of the Interdisciplinary Neurosciences Research Program. The program’s Neuro Next Initiative brings together a range of faculty at GT, including Christopher Rozell (School of Electrical and Computer Engineering), Simon Sponberg (Physics and Biological Sciences), and Jennifer S. Singh (School of History and Sociology). These collaborators bring together applied research and community-facing liberal arts scholarship. Thus, the Neuro Next Initiative brings together researchers to develop potential practical applications of neurotechnology to serve and improve our communities.
Benefits of Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Research
Interdisciplinary collaboration draws various researchers together to implement projects that are often hard to move from an academic institution into the community or industry. By creating a collaborative environment with a shared vision from the beginning of a project, interdisciplinary collaboration enables the development of a research framework that moves beyond the boundaries of individual disciplines. This approach is especially important when a project seeks a comprehensive understanding of complex issues to provide real-world solutions that may involve policymakers.
Benefits of Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Teaching
Like collaborative research, interdisciplinary collaboration in the classroom opens up new avenues for students to learn from others, understand how they can blend their work with research in other disciplines, and create projects that matter outside their coursework. Incorporating an interdisciplinary collaboration framework in course design offers opportunities for innovative work that transfers to their future careers.
Often, faculty can implement interdisciplinary collaboration with small assignments and group work, but you can also:
- Create projects that enable students from different disciplines to work together
- Bring in instructors from other disciplines to guest lecture in your class
- Add a service-learning component to your course
- Invite community partners to give input on community impact
- Offer flexible assignments that require students to engage with work outside of their disciplines
Examples of Interdisciplinary Collaboration
Time and scheduling can seem like barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration, but teams can use resources that are already in place. For example, many academic institutions have teaching tools and resources to enhance interdisciplinary projects.
We can use Georgia Tech to illustrate. Say, for instance, you’re designing a course focusing on an aspect of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. GT’s Center of Teaching and Learning has materials and resources for faculty to help support innovative sustainability and SDG teaching strategies.
Another practical teaching resource often used to highlight the role of interdisciplinary research and what it can develop is a tour of the Kendeda Building. This activity fosters discussions about how blending research and interdisciplinary collaboration offers solutions to practical problems. Additionally, the Center for Sustainable Communities Research and Education helps faculty develop relationships with community partners and offer guidance for collaborating with community stakeholders.
These types of resources are available across academic institutions, and they’re an efficient way to improve interdisciplinary collaboration and research for students as soon as they step on campus.
What Are Effective Collaboration Strategies?
A key tenet of interdisciplinary collaboration is each team member should provide input from ideation to completion of a project. However, creating a team from different disciplines and backgrounds can often cause issues with communication and lead to disagreements about how to work as a team effectively.
These common interdisciplinary collaboration strategies can facilitate more efficient teamwork:
- Define Goals and Objectives: Share goals and clarify member responsibilities from the beginning of the project and make adjustments as necessary
- Share Language: Conduct workshops to open communication and reduce disciplinary jargon
- Exchange Knowledge: Develop an environment that encourages members to share their expertise
- Resolve Conflicts: Create protocols to resolve conflicts
- Create a Collaborative Environment: Foster creativity and create a shared learning community
- Promote Diversity and Inclusion: Encourage inclusive decision-making and value diverse backgrounds
- Evaluate Progress: Have a system to assess progress regularly
How GT’s ETDI Helps Create Effective Interdisciplinary Collaboration
Georgia Tech’s ETDI uses Gallup’s CliftonStrengths Assessment to train students, faculty, and staff to use their strengths to work effectively in a team. To efficiently collaborate across disciplines, developing effective team dynamics is important. Understanding your CliftonStrengths Assessment allows individuals to leverage their unique traits in different contexts. Collaboration can be more effective if each team member knows and understands their strengths.
ETDI offers curriculum sets for undergraduate and graduate students to help them establish the necessary team dynamics to collaborate across disciplines successfully. Likewise, ETDI provides workshops that focus on team activities to enhance collaboration.
Please contact us to set up a free workshop or to have ETDI help you navigate interdisciplinary collaboration.