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Educating Broad Thinkers: A Quantitative Analysis of Curricular and Pedagogical Techniques Used to Promote Interdisciplinary Skills

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Active and Inquiry-Based Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.519.1 - 22.519.18



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Paper Authors


David B. Knight Pennsylvania State University, University Park Orcid 16x16

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David Knight is a Ph.D. candidate in the Higher Education Program at Pennsylvania State University and is a graduate research assistant on two NSF-funded engineering education projects. His research interests include STEM education, interdisciplinary teaching and research, organizational issues in higher education, and leadership and administration in higher education. Email:

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Educating Broad Thinkers: A Quantitative Analysis of Curricular and Pedagogical Techniques Used to Promote Interdisciplinary SkillsABET’s accreditation Criterion 3.d calls for all engineering programs to prepare undergraduateengineers to work in multidisciplinary teams. The National Academy of Engineering’s 2005 TheEngineer of 2020 indicates that multidisciplinary teamwork is insufficient for addressing today’scomplex engineering problems. Rather, interdisciplinary thinking and teamwork are needed toaddress problems requiring knowledge from a range of disciplines both inside and outsideengineering. Students should understand how to identify the constraints of social systems withvarying economic, legal and political dimensions. Little research has been conducted oninterdisciplinary education, and there is a void in the literature linking students’ interdisciplinarylearning outcomes to educational practices, especially in engineering education contexts. Thispaper aims to identify both 1) the influences of curricular emphases on interdisciplinary content,and 2) the role that active/student-centered pedagogical techniques contribute to the developmentof students’ interdisciplinary skills.In this study, I use a newly-constructed data set that focuses on the preparation of undergraduateengineers. Data collection for this project was sponsored by the National Science Foundation,and the nationally representative final sample consists of 31 four-year institutions. This is adisproportionate, random, 6 x 3 x 2 stratified sampling that was drawn using the following strata:6 engineering disciplines (biomedical/bioengineering, chemical, civil, electrical, industrial, andmechanical); 3 levels of highest degree offered (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate); and twolevels of institutional control (public and private). Surveys were administered to engineeringundergraduates to generate a better understanding of current curriculum and instructionaltechniques, learning environments, administrative and organizational policies/practices, andstudent educational experiences and outcomes.Findings identified differences between the contributions of curricular emphases and classroomexperiences on the development of engineering students’ interdisciplinary skills. Makingexplicit disciplinary connections may contribute more to the development of these skills thansimply having students work in groups. Results can advise engineering curriculum planners onhow to best balance resources and energy between 1) making connections, ensuring that studentsunderstand the contributions of other disciplines, and stressing application, and 2) using variouspedagogical techniques aimed at the development of interdisciplinary skills. Furthermore,several individual student characteristics were entered in the model as control variable. Astudent’s high school SAT critical reading score exhibited a significant positive relationship withinterdisciplinary skills. As such this finding suggests that if a program is seeking students with ahigher affinity for understanding interdisciplinary topics, admissions committees should payparticular attention to scores on the SAT critical reading test; students with lower SAT criticalreading scores might need more targeted instruction to develop this skill.Previous research on the development of students’ interdisciplinary skills has focused on singleprogram case studies. This study contributes to the literature by identifying influences on thedevelopment of interdisciplinary skills across multiple programs and institutions. As engineeringgraduates are asked to solve problems that transcend the boundaries of social, economic,political, and environmental realms, research such as this is a first step in understanding how toeffectively develop students’ interdisciplinary skills.

Knight, D. B. (2011, June), Educating Broad Thinkers: A Quantitative Analysis of Curricular and Pedagogical Techniques Used to Promote Interdisciplinary Skills Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17800

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