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IMPACTful Blog - The Synergistic Power of Interdisciplinary Teaching

By Jillian Miller posted 27 days ago


SPECIAL NOTE: This blog has been posted on behalf of a QB@CC colleague, Joseph Esquibel. Joe teaches biology at Lansing Community College in Michigan.

Hello! As a biology professor in this QB@CC interdisciplinary network, I’ve seen the impact of interdisciplinary education from a slightly different perspective.

I was always interested in adding a numerical and quantitative focus to my teaching. However, it wasn't until I joined this network and worked closely with teams of math and biology faculty that I really reached this goal.

My classes feel transformed. It is easy to think of classroom time as a zero-sum game, that time spent on one topic means that I need to cut time on another topic. But due to the synergistic impact of interdisciplinary teaching, this is not the case at all. By adding in math, my students learn the biology content more deeply. By firmly starting a lesson with question about the world, they want to tackle the math to answer the question. It’s fantastic.  

Before my time with QB@CC, I taught a Cellular unit, like most biologists do, without any reference to numbers. After QB@CC, I now have my students tackle questions like: What is the most common cell type (muscle, neuron, red blood cell, etc.) in the human body? What is the largest cell type in the body? How much smaller is the smallest cell type compared to the largest cell type in human body? I have my students answer these questions by doing unit conversions with scientific numbers (ex: An individual neuron has a density of 1.1 g/mL and mass of 2.64 * 10^-9 grams, what is its volume?). My student’s interest is so much higher now!

I never addressed these types of questions before. In fact, most biology textbooks have a figure that depicts a muscle cell as the same volume as a red blood cell when, in reality, muscle cells are four orders of magnitude larger than neurons!

My students learn the biology content more deeply because I take the time to add in math content. I adore looking at my biology curriculum with my new quantitative lens. It magnifies and pulls my focus to different aspects of the familiar. Many units use numbers superficially, at best; for example, we might use numbers to list things. Every unit I look at has so much low-hanging fruit that could add delicious new insights and opportunities for deeper understanding.

Furthermore, biology educators tend to use a different language than math educators.

  • We teach how to expand square binomials (without ever referencing squaring, multiplication, binomials or FOIL) by using a Punnett Square method.
  • We have our students solve specific types of expanded square binomials problems but refer to this topic as Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium problems.
  • We often teach the ratios of density and molarity, with extensive class and lab time, without saying the word ratio.
  • Multiplication now refers to reproduction.
  • Division…also refers to reproduction.
  • Digits refer to specific bones on our appendages.
  • If we ask them to “make a graph”, we almost always mean “graph the data as a scatter plot by choosing appropriate scales for both variables, limited to the subspace in quadrant 1 of a cartesian coordinate system, so that all values are depicted”. 

Sometimes, QB@CC’s working groups of math and biology faculty will stumble on a curriculum topic for which each discipline has a distinct vocab and quickly recognize we can’t understand each other. If the math and biology faculty can’t understand each other, what are our students going through?! We’ve found that by taking the time to discuss how each discipline teaches the same concept, what they focus on, what language they use, and common student misconceptions, faculty can really fine tune our own courses as we better understand our students.

What are some rewards or challenges you’ve faced in interdisciplinary teaching? How can we support each other better in this collaborative effort?

Referenced Class Activity: Sizes, Scales and Specialization: Using Relative Proportions and Scientific Notation to Highlight the Diversity of Cell Types