Collaborative discovery across disciplinary divides: promoting interdisciplinary learning via student-led extracurricular art/science research and practice
Silke Lange and Joshua Dinsmore, University of WestminsterThis article is based upon a recent interdisciplinary pedagogic research project – ‘Broad Vision: The Art & Science of Looking’ – which explored the perception and interpretation of microscopic worlds, whilst simultaneously investigating the potential benefits and challenges of working across disciplinary divides within a university. The authors reflect upon the different roles undertaken by st...
Keywords: art/science research and practice, interdisciplinary pedagogic research, generative curriculum, student-led curriculum, student as researcher
This article is based upon a recent interdisciplinary pedagogic research project – ‘Broad Vision: The Art & Science of Looking’ – which explored the perception and interpretation of microscopic worlds, whilst simultaneously investigating the potential benefits and challenges of working across disciplinary divides within a university. The authors reflect upon the different roles undertaken by students and lecturers (as researchers, facilitators and producers) and consider the innovative, democratic process of curriculum development that evolved during the project. The case study described is expected to be of interest to staff and students in Higher Education who would welcome the prospect of working within a ground-breaking educational model.
In the autumn of 2010, a team of undergraduate students and academic staff from six disciplines at the University of Westminster investigated questions of vision and perception through a year-long research project designed to explore how we look at, see and interpret mircoscopic worlds. ‘Broad Vision’ brought together researchers from diverse disciplines of Photographic Art, Imaging Science, Illustration, Computer Science, Psychology and Life Science. Microscopy and other imaging technologies were used to explore themes of scale and abstraction, seeing and analysing, science and art. By asking students to focus on process (not products) and providing professional arenas for outputs (exhibition, publication, symposium and conference presentations) extraordinary progress was made.
Curious individuals, students and staff, stepped outside of their comfort zones and engaged with, to them, unfamiliar disciplines, methodologies and approaches to a subject or problem. The project was structured in three phases: ‘disciplinary exchange, interdisciplinary research and audience engagement’ (Barnett and Smith, 2011). The themes on which students were focusing throughout the research and production of the project were generated through different ways of interacting with the other disciplines, resulting in what we would call a generative curriculum.
An interdisciplinary, collaborative approach has been at the centre of the ‘Broad Vision’ project and will be continued in this paper through emphasising the different voices of the educational researcher of the project, Silke Lange, and one of the undergraduate student researchers, Joshua Dinsmore. Each has interacted differently with other participants during the research, contributed to the activities and experiments from different perspectives, and observed through very distinct lenses.
The Generative Curriculum in an Interdisciplinary Context
The generative curriculum, as we understand it, was made possible through the phased structure set out at the beginning of the project. During the disciplinary phase students learnt about each other’s field of study, and gained some understanding of approaches, languages and methodologies used in the other disciplines. This was achieved by designing taster sessions, such as workshops and experiments within each discipline in order to engage students and staff from other disciplines (Figures 1-3).
In the second phase, small groups were formed, based upon research interests. Through creative face-to-face conversations and the use of an online forum, the following research themes emerged: the art of microscopy; eye tracking and aesthetics; anatomy of the eye; and growth and form. The research conducted by each group developed into innovative and creative ideas, enhanced by the interdisciplinary approach. Some aspects of the research process and its outcomes were presented in London Gallery West (Harrow Campus, University of Westminster) during the final phase, audience engagement (Figure 4).
Overall, the project resembled a student-centred approach to research, as described by Graham Gibbs (1998):
Unlike conventional teaching the focus of learning during supervision is not on the teacher, but on the individual student’s work and experience, which is largely outside the supervisor’s experience or control. The starting point is what the student is doing, not what the teacher knows. As a result the relationship between teacher and student is profoundly altered. Students can find this change of relationship and roles – the shift from dependence to autonomy, and from an academic focus to a focus on practice – both exciting and disorienting (p. 5).
During ‘Broad Vision’, both staff and students experienced a change of relationships and roles, and whilst this was challenging and disorientating at times, they embraced the opportunity and developed an exciting and rewarding project. As Joshua recalls:
The generative curriculum in ‘Broad Vision’ was made possible through the ‘loose’ instructions given by lecturers, the emphasis on process rather than product, a description of equipment available and the timeframe within which we were expected to work. With this information in mind, we, staff and students, started our conversations within, as well as across disciplines, shared our research interests and engaged each other in discipline driven activities. Due to the range of disciplines and individuals involved in the project, the scope of the material we were researching and sharing grew day by day, increasing the level of unpredictability of the research process and its outcomes along with it. One of the most exciting parts of the project for me was the way in which the research material itself propelled the students into further research and learning; as one piece of information caused you to desire another, so things grew organically and fortuitous.
This notion of unpredictability described by Joshua mirrors the society in which we are all participants. Our working lives have become increasingly changeable, and we are expected to approach our everyday tasks with a flexible and open mind. In our view, it is the role of education to enable students to develop the knowledge and skills to actively participate in such a world. As stated by Stephen Rowland in his book The Enquiring University (2006):
In a society that has become increasingly unpredictable it is important that those who teach, as well as their students, acknowledge their inability to predict the outcome of the search for knowledge, rather than pretend that learning can be reduced to the predictability (p. 26).
The curriculum of the ‘Broad Vision’ project began with a structure in which staff or students were not able to envisage what the outcomes might be. As this is a challenging position to begin with, especially with the project’s interdisciplinary nature, it was important to create a safe learning environment in which participants were comfortable to express their uncertainties, ask questions and explore tentative ideas. Wenger’s concept of ‘communities of practice’ (1998) describes such a learning environment best. In this, students and staff can develop their research and practice collaboratively – through asking questions, analysing and justifying their actions, and by giving and receiving constructive criticism. Participants’ contributions to meetings within their community may be experiential, factual, emotional or personal in nature, adding multiple dimensions to the knowledge shared and gained with each other. This range of knowledge may assist participants in developing different aspects of their research and practice, nurturing their learning and ideas, thus enabling them to acquire further understanding relevant to their field of study, as well as that of the other disciplines. As summarised by Joshua: ‘The strength of the generative curriculum within this interdisciplinary research project was that it encouraged ‘wandering’, resulting in random encounters and interactions with concepts, materials and approaches to research from all participating disciplines.’
The physical learning spaces used by staff and students participating in the ‘Broad Vision’ project had a significant impact on the development of the curriculum, the research and its outcomes. As confirmed by my observations of a session in the microscopy laboratory, for example, working in a studio, laboratory, or gallery space encourages a physical engagement with the ideas and materials in ways that could not possibly happen in the lecture or seminar format. The simple layout of the seats and/or tables creates hierarchies and dictates the ways in which staff and students interact in these spaces. During ‘Broad Vision’, however, the laboratory had been transformed into a space in which collaborative working methods, based on common interest, curiosity and dialogue, could be explored and new discussions and ways of working were engendered by experiencing one’s own discipline through working with others. As pointed out by one of the student researchers: ’I get lots of questions from the different disciplines, things I have never thought about…’ The interdisciplinary approach to working in this project could be described as a progressive way of learning for open-minded students wanting to share and develop knowledge and practice. This type of learning reflects Vygotsky’s (1978) idea of ‘social constructivism’, whereby students have opportunities to develop and enhance their soft and transferable skills in areas such as collaboration, teamwork, and communication through the interaction with each other.
Challenges of a generative curriculum
So far in this article, we have mainly focused on the benefits of working with a generative curriculum in an interdisciplinary context. There are, of course, a number of disadvantages that we identified throughout the duration of ‘Broad Vision’. Joshua remembers:
There were times when students felt lost. Being an art student, this was not a new experience for me, as research and experiments often lead into the unknown. For my peers from other disciplines, however, feeling lost because of limited instructions given, was a new experience. I think it is important that tutors are aware of this when working with a generative curriculum and provide extra support in the form of individual and group tutorials. However, I believe that allowing students to feel lost is equally important. As we have mentioned previously, to live in the real world means to not have all the information. Getting used to feeling ‘ok about being lost' is a skill in itself. Knowing which information is vital to your aspirations and goals, and which is not, to me seems crucial to making progress in the world outside of University.
As ‘Broad Vision’ was an extra-curricular project, time became a key factor for most of the participating students (and staff). As reflected in Joshua’s statement, there were times when additional guidance or support was needed, but this may not always have been available or possible to arrange. Some students were in a fortunate position in that the learning processes and outcomes of the project matched a module on which they were enrolled as part of their course, and they were able to gain credits for the work produced. However, this was not the norm and most students worked well beyond the expectation of undergraduate study.
Considerations of the general workload initiated discussions amongst the project team regarding the design of a ‘Broad Vision’ module. Whilst this would help to promote the project as an educational model across the university, as well as create time and space in participants’ schedules, it would also bring further challenges with it. These include, for example, fitting the project into the modular system, budgeting the running costs across several departments and working against a fragmented higher education community. Furthermore, the assessment design of the module would require careful consideration of the process-led research; realistic measures of levels of participation and contribution; and the various methodologies and languages used by the different disciplines to respond to a brief.
There is no doubt that working with a generative curriculum in the context of an interdisciplinary project requires a high level of commitment and dedication from all participants. Considering the results of the first year of the project we are confident that this approach to learning and teaching creates opportunities to go way beyond the predictable. The ethos of ‘Broad Vision’: its interdisciplinary, collaborative and generative approach to learning, and ways of broadening students’ horizons and searching for knowledge is a great motivator for all involved. Its potential for developing working relationships between staff and students and across departmental boundaries opens up new possibilities of collaboration.
The most concrete outcomes of the project, so far, include: exhibitions in art galleries, internal and external presentations at learning and teaching symposia, a website (http://www.broad-vision.info), and a book illustrating the various phases of the project, including reflections on the process written by a number of participants (Broad Vision: The Art & Science of Looking, ISBN: 978-0-9550951-5-3).
There are, of course, the numerous intangible outcomes of the project, experienced differently by each participant. As described by Joshua: ‘As a student researcher, I am surprised by what I have produced within this project, how natural it felt to be with and to speak with passionate people from all disciplines. I am looking forward to the continued exploration of the no-man’s-land between the borders of our subjects.’
As for myself, as educational researcher, I only have to think about the many conversations I had throughout the duration of ‘Broad Vision’, the moments of interactions I saw and dialogues between participants I overheard. They still excite me and I wish to share my observations. More so, I want to find out how educational institutions can support progressive approaches to learning such as I had seen during ‘Broad Vision’.
Dr Silke Lange is a researcher, educator and photographic artist. Her work focuses on the creative process, collective learning and connections between creative practices and society. She is Director of Learning and Teaching in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, where she also teaches photography.
Joshua Dinsmore is a recent graduate from the BA (Hons) Photographic Arts at the University of Westminster. He is artist and student facilitator for this year’s ‘Broad Vision’ project. He creates artworks inspired by science and currently works on a series of sculptures using fractal geometry as the starting point.
Barnett, H. and Smith, J. R. A. (2011) Broad Vision: The Art & Science of Looking, London, University of Westminster.
Gibbs, G. (1998) Teaching in higher education: theory and evidence, Milton Keynes, Open University.
Rowland, S. (2006) The Enquiring University, Maidenhead/Berkshire, Open University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society, Harvard University Press.
Wenger E. (1998) Communities of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Photos: Chiara Ceolin and Joshua Dinsmore
Figure 1: Students and lecturers testing blood in the laboratory.
Figure 2: Psychology lecturer and Photographic Arts student working on an Illustration exercise.
Figure 3: Students and lecturers laughing during Computer Science exercise.
Figure 4: Imaging Science student showing a psychology test (developed throughout the project) to her relatives during the exhibition.
Listing image by Anand Damadoran, created for Broad Vision project
Header image by Nina Jørgenson, created for Broad Vision project