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Stretch Students' Limits

Aug 09, 2012   |   by Dean Joseph Helble   |   BusinessNH Magazine

Higher education does well in teaching students the core knowledge associated with individual disciplines, but continues to struggle in educating students to think outside of their disciplinary boundaries. If we are serious about educating a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we need to develop opportunities for students to stretch the limits of their knowledge beyond the silos of their particular discipline.

While most universities attempt this through imposition of distribution requirements, I would like to see students challenged to go far beyond this by including open-ended interdisciplinary project experiences as part of their undergraduate education.

Take my field of engineering as an example. These kinds of project experiences are known to motivate student interest, improve retention, and increase learning, yet most engineering schools restrict the project experience to one within a specific department of say electrical engineering or chemical engineering. Why? Shouldn’t we instead challenge our students with projects that draw from multiple disciplines and require electrical, mechanical, and computer engineers to work collaboratively as a single unified team? This is the type of experience they are most likely to encounter in their careers, and this is the type of experience that will begin to help them see the world through a lens of problems rather than one of academic departments.

And there is no reason this needs to be restricted to projects within engineering, only for engineers. Our experience, and that of institutions like Stanford’s School of Design, has shown that classes providing these types of project opportunities can successfully bring together students from the humanities and social sciences with those from science and engineering. Students bring the tools of their discipline but learn to collaborate, to communicate in non-specialist language, to focus on outcomes instead of process, and develop extraordinary—and even entrepreneurial—ideas.

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