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Crossing Boundaries

Interdisciplinary Education Is a Hallmark of a Niagara Education

As defined by the National Academies, interdisciplinary research is “a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives,concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.”

As performed on the Niagara University campus, interdisciplinary research is forming new connections, solving societal problems, and preparing students for careers in new fields.

“The liberal arts foundation itself is an interdisciplinary one, where students learn from a variety of fields to gain knowledge that can be applied to their majors,” notes Dr. Tim Downs, Niagara’s vice president for academic affairs. “As a liberal arts based institution, it’s imperative for us to encourage what I would call integrative thinking. And what this means is that from the student-learning perspective, we value students applying knowledge and skills across all domains of learning.”

Niagara’s liberal arts foundation is established through its general education curriculum, which emphasizes active, integrative learning. Through courses in writing, religious studies, history,philosophy, mathematics, foreign language, natural science, social science, and the humanities, students gain the intellectual and ethical background to search for, create, and assess solutions to real-life problems in the local and global community.

This focus on interdisciplinary education was first introduced at Niagara in 1980, when the University Studies program was launched as a way to demonstrate how diverse academic disciplines contribute to the discussion and solution of common intellectual issues and practical problems.

“In the late 1970s, many of the leading educational foundations, particularly the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, had been urging universities to undertake such programs, reminding faculty that most important issues in life are rarely one-dimensional,” notes university professor Dr. John Stranges, who served as academic vice president at that time. “The University Studies program was the first true attempt to introduce the idea of interdisciplinary education into the Niagara University curriculum. We chose the general education component as the entry point to ensure that all students, regardless of choice of major, would undergo the experience.”

Students were required to take one UST course in their senior year. Two instructors from two different departments taught the courses, which were offered until 2003.

Although UST courses are no longer part of Niagara’s curriculum, numerous projects that involve interdisciplinary work are still being conducted across Monteagle Ridge.

For example, under the auspices of the university’s Academic Center for Integrated Sciences and in cooperation with the Heart Center of Niagara, faculty and students from the college’s biology and chemistry departments have been working together for several years to research the use of biomarkers and biological and molecular mechanisms for the diagnosis and treatment of coronary heart disease. Senior scientist Dr. Deborah Leonard is the research coordinator for the project, which is a collaboration among Dr. Robert Greene, chair of the biology department; Dr. Mary McCourt, chair of the chemistry department; Dr. Chris Stoj, assistant professor of biochemistry; Dr. Michael Merhige,a cardiologist at the Heart Center of Niagara at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center; and Dr. Brent Williams of the Geisinger Health System, an integrated health services organization.

“This research has had a positive impact on our students,” Dr. Leonard says. “Students interested in the clinical aspects of the project have had an opportunity to work at the Heart Center collecting patient data, and others have been involved in the analysis of biological samples here at Niagara. Some students have also had the opportunity to have their research presented at national and international conferences.”

In August of 2011, professors from the psychology department joined their colleagues to look at the way psychological factors, such as depression, anxiety and optimism, interact with the biological factors of CAD.

“We felt it would be a good opportunity for collaboration as there were no psychological or behavioral data on the patients in the study,” says Dr. Peter Butera, chair of the psychology department, who has been working with psychology professor Dr. Timothy Osberg on the project. “We saw this as a unique opportunity to incorporate the study of psychological factors in the database on biological markers of CAD severity.”

Dr. Greene is also conducting research with Dr. McCourt and Dr. Ron Priefer, associate professor of chemistry, on two projects studying the effects of therapeutic agents on cancer cells in culture. These projects have resulted in the publication of two papers with students as co-authors. Dr. Greene notes that in addition to the dynamic created as a result of the interaction between the two disciplines, another benefit of this partnership is “the pleasure of exchanging ideas and experiencing new vistas with colleagues who provide different ways to view a common challenge.”

Another biology professor, Dr. William Edwards, is working with hydrologists, chemists, engineers and geologists from the University at Buffalo, as well as students from his classes and graduate students from UB, on stream restoration research to predict what physical conditions will result in restored ecosystem function in two local streams, something single-disciplinary studies have been unable to do.

“The most interesting experience is to see the undergrads working their way through our research program with the UB graduate students,” he says. “They are truly interdisciplinary researchers — they’ve never experienced anything else. So when we ask them for hypotheses to address a new problem or application of our research, they immediately go for the multidisciplinary approach — it doesn’t even occur to them that this is unusual.”

In the English department, Dr. Joseph Little has been collaborating with Dr. Maritza Branker, an assistant professor of mathematics, to examine the role of analogy in the development of Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton’s theory of conjugate pairs. Their work, which will be published in Technical Communication Quarterly, is the first of its kind to extend the traditional scholarly discussion of technical analogy, which usually focuses on scientific discourse, to that of research-level mathematics, notes Dr. Little. It’s also the first research manuscript co-authored by a mathematics professor and an English professor to be published in either field.

“Our driving question was: To what degree did Hamilton think in terms of analogies to develop his theory of conjugate pairs? Neither Maritza nor I could have answered that question alone. We simply did not have the expertise for it. But together we could. In that way, this project required a truly interdisciplinary effort, a synthesis of our different disciplinary approaches into a single, commensurate conceptual scheme,” Dr. Little says.

For the past two years, social work professor Dr. Kevin Blair has collaborated with colleagues in the math, sociology and criminal justice departments to develop a survey that measures Niagara students’ knowledge of and attitudes toward poverty, as well as Niagara’s effectiveness in fulfilling its mission by educating students about the poor. The collaboration enabled the professors to take advantage of their particular skills. “Todd (Schoepflin) brings the broadest base of thinking via sociology; Marlo (Brown) knows less about poverty but knows the math; Dave (Taylor) looks at poverty and its relationship to crime and criminology; and I bring the more practical problem solving; for example, how do we get people food, clothing, shelter and jobs,” Dr. Blair explains.

While much of the interdisciplinary work is being done between departments, there are interesting collaborations taking place between colleges as well. John Overbeck, a visiting professor of marketing in the College of Business, is tapping into the expertise of the Theatre Department in the College of Arts and Sciences to help students in his sales communication course overcome their inhibitions about public speaking and improve their presentation techniques. As part of the course, students attend a theatre workshop, during which they participate in activities that enhance their verbal communication skills.

“The idea to do this stems from my belief that my theatre experience as a student helped my business career,” says John, who is a member of Niagara’s Class of 1975. He added that CEOs often list acting among the top five academic subjects one should take for success in business.

Another College of Business professor is working with a colleague in the College of Education to employ secondary teaching techniques into a freshman-level managerial accounting course. The experiment between assistant professor of accounting Christopher Aquino and Dr. Paul Vermette, a professor of education, began in the spring of 2011, Chris’ second year of teaching at Niagara, and has led to an increase in student test scores and improved ratings by students regarding how the in-class activities contributed to their learning.

“That’s the one that made me a believer,” Chris says. “All I did between the two years was put some tools in place.”

The two published a paper that they presented in March at a regional meeting of the American Accounting Association. The paper received Best Manuscript in the Teaching, Learning and Curriculum section.

“I’m unabashedly proud of getting the outstanding paper at an accounting conference,” Dr. Vermette says. “That says to me that there’s a lot of people out there interested in collaborations like ours.”

Niagara also encourages students to perform interdisciplinary work through a variety of academic options. One such option is the master’s program in interdisciplinary studies, during which students take graduate courses from the colleges of Business Administration, Education, and Arts and Sciences and conduct research in these varied disciplines to complete their capstone projects and papers. Students find that the interdisciplinary nature of their work gives them a diverse skill set and a new appreciation for the connections between fields.

Since its beginnings in the 1980s, interdisciplinary education has become a hallmark of a Niagara education. And the opportunities for continued work in this vein will only be enhanced with the construction of the university’s new science building, positioning Niagara to be a key player in helping discover the new knowledge needed to provide solutions to society’s increasingly complex problems.