The Nebula Blog

The case to embrace cross-disciplinary learning

education Aug 02, 2021
Cross-Disciplinary Learning

No two students are alike—this is an obvious claim. Students’ interests, experiences, and passions are going to differ. As educators, our job should be to help students explore their passions in the setting of our classrooms.

In an ideal world students could spend their time exploring the curriculum of your class in a lens that interests them. This isn’t always easy, as learning has to be assessed—how can you accurately compare, let alone grade, the work of students that are working and exploring on their own?

In my freshman year of high school I had elected to take AP Biology. Without any prior biology background, and as the only freshman in a class of mainly seniors, I had my work cut out for me. Fortunately for me, the teacher was an advocate for this type of project-based learning. Throughout the year he was able to allow us the freedom to take a deeper look at biological concepts on our terms.

One of the most memorable deep dives that I was able to take was exploring coacervates and the origin of life. We spent a good amount of time learning the foundational material needed to conduct a lab assignment. Finally, we were set free to investigate and develop a lab on our own. This process of reviewing research allowed me to open my eyes to some of the intersections of biology, ecology, and chemistry.

Then, I was able to take a strain of research—looking at the formation of life in pH diverse environments—and recreate a study on early life forms. Replicating the chemical environment of geysers at Yosemite National Park, I was able to not only apply what I had learned in my AP Biology class… I was able to extend past it, while applying both past concepts as well as new ideas.

Allowing students to apply what they’re learning in the classroom while exploring what interests them isn’t that hard to implement. There are really only four main components that, when combined, allow for this type of cross-disciplinary learning.

The four main components of cross-disciplinary learning
  1. Past experiences. All of the experiences in life lead to one point—the present. When students are present in your classroom it’s important to remember that each one views through the lens of their lived experience. Some students might have a background in the area that you are teaching. Take advantage of that, and let students apply what they already know to each lesson.
  2. Classroom learning. The learning that takes place inside of the classroom helps to build a foundation and level the playing field. Classroom learning is so important because it gives students the background and confidence to explore on their own.
  3. Student’s research. The practice of reviewing others’ work is so important because it broadens students’ minds and allows them to think critically. At this stage in the learning process, students should be able to explore why this area is important to them—no matter if that’s why machine learning is important for bee conservation, or why calculus is used in fluid dynamics.
  4. Experiential learning. The pinnacle experience of learning is applying that knowledge. That’s why students should be able to conduct a culminating project—no matter if that’s an essay, an experiment, or a lesson that they share with the class.

By affording students the ability to complete a culminating project you afford them the ability to grow their skills, knowledge, and interests. Grading, of course, will have to occur at some point along the way. By giving students guidelines for outcomes you can grade the learning process rather than just the product.

Cross-disciplinary learning is a tool that doesn’t just allow students to explore their interests; it’s a tool that allows students to develop their passions. By providing a roadmap for students to apply their knowledge they can begin to build upon it and become lifelong learners.

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