Into the Interdisciplinary

Samantha Yap and Shruthi Nyshadham

Freshmen stream into the classroom, clad in padded suits and desperately reading off notecards. All the endless paper revisions and the technological mishaps have led to this moment: the Integrated Biology, English, and Technology (IBET) presentations. It’s a familiar scene.

Interdisciplinary classes like IBET, Chemistry/Humanities (CHUM), English/History (HUM), and Senior Seminar or Global Studies have long been a staple at Jefferson.Despite its focus on science and technology, the 1985 school charter also established a “community where academic disciplines are integrated.”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay via Creative Commons
Jefferson’s commitment to interdisciplinary research is shown through programs such as HUM (paired English and Social Studies) and the IBET model. These classes are part of a larger trend sweeping across college campuses and research institutions; a 2009 study examined a variety of science research papers and found that papers in 2005 cited an average of 50% more ‘subject categories’ than papers in 1975.

How exactly those classes are taught, however, is up to the teachers. Over the years, they have built courses around the needs of students. While most students take integrated humanities courses, seniors can opt to take Government and English classes separately.

“IBET sets up a core foundation for freshmen coming into high school,” Humanities division manager Suzette Henry said. “But as students get older [we consider] the needs of your TJ experience. As you progress from freshman to senior year, the singleton offerings come about.”

Different teamed offerings have different approaches to integration. Some, like Senior Seminar, a paired Government and Literature course, choose to focus on themes. “What makes [Senior Seminar] a really exciting course is the fact that the approach for every single literary work or novel we read is related to one or all of those themes [of language and power], inviting discussion with each other’s subjects,” English teacher Maria Gilbert said.

Integration also takes the form of large scale projects, which come with benefits and drawbacks. “Last year [CHUM] was a lot more project based than I thought it would be,” junior Julia Drennan said. “That was pretty cool, but it was also pretty stressful at the same time. It’s a tradeoff. I definitely like [interdisciplinary courses] for the social purposes, because then you get a group of friends and you have the same friends in three classes.”

Proponents of teamed classes, like AP US History teacher Brian Field, say that paired classes can reduce workload and stress through the coordination of homework. They also allow students to explore subjects from different angles, Field said.

Senior Claire Cofield, who is taking singleton senior Humanities courses this year, disagrees. “I didn’t think the teamed aspect added anything to the class experience. It also didn’t necessarily ensure that you wouldn’t have big assignments in each class due on the same day,” Cofield said. “I don’t think HUM really tried to weave the material together. [History and English were] different classes that just happened to have the same students.”

Students who enjoy subject-specific material may also find that teamed classes detract from their learning experience. “In IBET, I felt like time that could have been used on reading and thinking critically about books was used instead on teaching scientific writing,” senior Sarah Gold said. “While I do think that scientific writing is a valuable skill, it felt like IBET meant that the science classes took precedent over the English class.”

Additionally, teamed classes put pressure on teachers to provide an integrated experience. “I would say it takes [a team of teachers] about three years to figure each other out,” Field said. “Teaming is not always easy for the teachers because you also have to sometimes pull back on your own curriculum, and teachers don’t like to do that. You have to navigate and negotiate it out at times.”

Assistant Principal Shawn Frank acknowledges the complications of interdisciplinary programs; paired classes make scheduling and hiring more complicated. “We always think of [pairing teachers] as a marriage, and there’s a chemistry to it.”

Despite complications, teachers and administrators remain adamant in their commitment to the interdisciplinary programs. “Even if we have to make some compromises because of scheduling parameters, [teamed courses] are a cornerstone of our school and we are committed to it,” Henry said.

A 2015 Nature Magazine article suggests that universities and students are increasingly pushing for interdisciplinary programs through grants, degree offerings, and new centers. The article attributes the rise of interdisciplinary programs to technology and online courses.

“This is something we believe is essential for students. People look at the face of the school and they see science and technology,” Frank said. “But we’re a comprehensive program, and that includes history and English. [The interdisciplinary humanities program] is very specialized, and it’s very special.”