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In The Eye Of The Beholder: Defining And Studying Interdisciplinarity In Engineering Education

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Educational Research

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.710.1 - 15.710.24

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Paper Authors

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Lisa Lattuca Pennsylvania State University


David Knight The Pennsylvania State University

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David Knight is a doctoral student in the Higher Education Program and a graduate research assistant in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State.

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In the Eye of the Beholder: Defining and Studying Interdisciplinarity in Engineering Education Abstract

The philosophical, practical, and empirical literature on interdisciplinarity reveals that there is considerable debate about what “counts” as interdisciplinary teaching and research. Decisions about which theories and definitions to adopt have implications for how scholars define interdisciplinarity, what educators believe constitutes interdisciplinary education, and for what researchers choose to include and exclude in studies of the development of students’ interdisciplinary competence. In this paper we present data excerpts from six detailed case studies that reveal the many, varied, and often conflicting, definitions of interdisciplinarity used by engineering administrators and faculty members in discussions of undergraduate educational activities intended to develop students’ interdisciplinary competence. These definitions-in-use do not always align with theory-based definitions of interdisciplinarity, and they did not neatly align with the conceptualization of interdisciplinarity that guided our study. In this paper, we discuss the methodological challenge that multiple, competing conceptualizations of interdisciplinarity (and multidisciplinarity) posed for the research team, focusing specifically on the question of whether to include or exclude from our analyses faculty and administrators’ reports on learning activities if the conceptualization of interdisciplinary undergirding those activities was not consistent with our study definition. We discuss the substantive impact of different decisions and report how the team ultimately resolved this problem in a way that was methodologically and theoretically defensible. Finally, we present examples (from the case study sites) of learning activities that might not meet a strict theoretical definition of interdisciplinary educational activities but that might promote the development of interdisciplinary competence by building skills that contribute to that competence.

Introduction Interdisciplinarity has been a topic of scholarly interest for several decades (see Klein, 19901; Kockelmans, 19792; Lattuca, 20013; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 19724; Repko, 20085), and engineering education researchers have recently begun to explore it as an educational approach at the graduate and undergraduate levels (e.g., Borrego, Newswander, McNair, McGinnis & Paretti, 20096; Drezek, Olsen, & Borrego, 20087; McNair, Paretti, & Kakar, 20088; Newswander & Borrego, 20099; Richter & Paretti, 200910). Despite long-term and widespread interest in the topic, however, defining interdisciplinarity remains a conceptual and methodological challenge. For some, the definitional issue is obviated by choosing to study programs that are ostensibly interdisciplinary (e.g., the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education, Research and Training program). The philosophical, practical, and empirical literature on interdisciplinarity, however, reveals that there is considerable debate about what “counts” as interdisciplinary research and teaching. This continuing controversy is worth noting because how we define interdisciplinarity has implications not only for what we label as interdisciplinary education, but for what we choose to study and how we study it.

In this paper, we review the literature on this definitional dilemma as a prelude to a discussion of the definitional, methodological, and philosophical challenges that we faced in this study and

Lattuca, L., & Knight, D. (2010, June), In The Eye Of The Beholder: Defining And Studying Interdisciplinarity In Engineering Education Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky.

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