I study engineering, so I am used to working in teams to tackle problems. However, these teams are rarely interdisciplinary so the Ideathon project was definitely a new experience. My team included people with backgrounds in biology, literature, philosophy, linguistics and psychology. I think this experience is vital because I strongly believe that interdisciplinary research naturally occurs when looking at real world problems (there is no exclusively biology-based problem). Going in with this assumption I was still surprised by how far the need for interdisciplinary work stretches.
Our group chose to do our project on ways to improve higher level education for students with learning disabilities. We centered our project on doing research into the available resources by department at Universities and investigating what styles of teaching had the most positive effect on outcomes of students with learning disabilities. The overarching goal of the project would be the establishment of a Center for Alternative Learning (CAL) that would oversee training for faculty and provide resources for students with learning disabilities.
This project required an interdisciplinary group with diverse backgrounds because the research inherently spans across disciplines at the university. A homogenous group would lack the necessary perspective to work across departments. For example, Cecelia’s and mine own experience in the STEM fields led us to wonder how we could adapt our research to analyze the prevailing assumption of meritocracy in the STEM fields. I was not expecting that a STEM background would be useful for a project that focused on education and social justice, but one huge takeaway I had is that any issue of improving access to resources will inherently require a diverse set of backgrounds.
While the project definitely had a humanities and social sciences leaning, I think that everyone in our group was able to contribute and I think this was a great learning opportunity particularly because we had a chance to engage across disciplines.
After assembling an interdisciplinary group, the next challenge is communication with the group across the barrier of discipline. We used no jargon, which made all communication easier. Our main strategy was to shoot off ideas in a brainstorming format, edit and elaborate on those ideas as a group, narrow down and synthesise those ideas, and then format our project to the requirements of the assignment. By brainstorming and elaborating we were able to get all our ideas out in the open quickly which gave time to actually explain and fill in experience gaps that were often discipline related. For example, lack of representation of the learning disabled in humanities lists was entirely off my radar but after learning more I could see how it could be an important issue. From here our strategy on connecting our ideas so that there was a clear overarching theme we could present on. This theme is important to understand because it informed our strategies. The theme we focused on was a lack of proactive inclusivity for individuals with learning disabilities. Overall by free communication, accelerated by minimal jargon, we were able to arrive at a general research approach for our problem and create our proposal around that idea.
This experience was a really great opportunity to interact with the other members of the Brackenridge program. One funny thing we all realized while talking is that we all had some degree of imposter syndrome. Everyone was worried their work was somehow “not good enough” in comparison to the rest of the cohort, but by acknowledging that everyone felt that way I feel like we dispelled that feeling. I think one unintended and positive outcome of this experience was regaining some of the peer support system lost in an online format.