Everything’s a Bit More Interdisciplinary Than You’d Think

As convenient as it might sound for a computer scientist like myself to only have to deal with techies in my career experiences, such a scenario is highly unlikely. Even if it were to be possible, the purpose of the Brackenridge thus far has been to show that that’s not necessarily a good idea to begin with. Sure, a team of solely programmers and software engineers would be very good at… well, programming and software engineering, but if computer scientists could do everything on their own, then everyone would just be a computer scientist, no? Obviously, there are many other important fields to include in your research to ensure other angles are considered.

That’s the theory, anyhow. The Ideathon puts that to the test.

It feels like the concept of the Ideathon could be the start to a cheesy joke: “A computer scientist, a classicist, a neurobiologist, a marketer, an archival researcher, and an economist walk into a bar….” However, instead of there being a punchline, the end of the Ideathon produces a slew of interesting proposals. The Ideathon is a novel idea for a couple reasons. First, and perhaps most obviously, is its interdisciplinarity. You are forced out of your comfort zone, working with people from fields you might never have interacted with otherwise. I might have worked with a neurobiologist in my research if I was modeling some biological system, but a classicist or art historian seems a bit less likely. Coupled with this wide range of fields to cover is a necessarily open-ended prompt. Although it wasn’t really a one-line prompt, the gist of it was: “Research an issue of equity in higher education. Go!” Although this open-endedness initially made the task daunting, it allowed for a lot of flexibility in the end. Much of our group’s meetings consisted of a conversational brainstorming style, with a few initial broad topics being enhanced, expanded, and then refined by the group’s interactions and conversations.

Our group finalized our research proposal around a mentoring program for first-generation students at Pitt, which you can view a brief PowerPoint presentation of here. One thing that surprised me was how important contributions from very different fields were, and how natural they were to include. I had initially worried that one of the key Ideathon requirements – that proposals include contributions from STEM, Social Science, and Humanities fields – would end up being a shoehorning challenge; the project would naturally fit one of those categories and then the other two would feel artificial or forced. But, while it was not a perfect three-way split, it felt very genuine to include expertise from wide fields, many of which our group did not actually have significant personal experience in.

It turns out that the Ideathon does in fact prove the theoretical importance of interdisciplinarity (or, to be more scientifically precise, it certainly does not disprove it). Often, it’s the big, open-ended questions that need to be solved, and the Ideathon is vital practice for a new generation of leaders.

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