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Constructive alignment of interdisciplinary graduate curriculum in engineering and science: An analysis of successful IGERT proposals


Interdisciplinary approaches are critical to solving the most pressing technological challenges. Despite the proliferation of graduate programs to fill this need, there is little archival literature identifying learning outcomes, learning experiences, or benchmarks for evaluating interdisciplinary graduate student learning.
The purpose of this study is to understand how engineering and science academics conceptualize interdisciplinary graduate education in order to identify common practices and recommend improvements. Questions generated by an instructional design framework guided the analysis: what desired outcomes, evidence, and learning experiences are currently associated with interdisciplinary graduate education? To what extent are these components constructively aligned with each other?
Content analysis was performed on 130 funded proposals from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program.
Four desired student learning outcomes were identified: contributions to the technical area, broad perspective, teamwork, and interdisciplinary communication skills. Student requirements (educational plans) addressed these outcomes to some extent, but assessment/evidence sections generally targeted program level goals—as opposed to student learning. This lack of constructive alignment between components is a major weakness of graduate curriculum.
Current practices are promising. Further clarification of interdisciplinary learning outcomes, coupled with closer alignment of outcomes, evidence, and learning experiences will continue to improve interdisciplinary graduate education in engineering and science. Specific recommendations for engineering and science faculty members are: define clear learning objectives, enlist assessment/evaluation expertise, and constructively align all aspects of the curriculum.