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Fingerprinting Scientific Discourse Across Disciplines


The barriers to disseminating research to others and learning from others’ research in an interdisciplinary field such as biointerfaces are significant. These are further amplified by the major differences in knowledge base, terminology, and culture that exist in the multi-disciplinary and cross-functional teams that comprise IGERT research projects. One of the mandates of the IGERT program is to identify and develop ways of training PhD scholars (the creative echelon and leadership of our future workforce) to be capable of transcending disciplinary boundaries. To address this mandate, Rutgers researchers have proposed a novel tool to track research discourse between disciplines and to “fingerprint” formative interaactions that may cross barriers and coalesce expertise in unprecedented ways. The Rutgers team hypothesized that key learning and dissemination challenges could be effectively addressed by bringing IGERT Trainees together at regular intervals for research forums (Figure 1) in which students take turns presenting their research and discussing with their cross-disciplinary peers, a small number of IGERT faculty, and facilitators. A unique outcome of this work is a new research tool and methodology, Graphical Record of Discourse (GROD) (Figure 2). The GROD tools enable the generation of diagrams or “fingerprints” that can be “read” to gain insights into the types of interactions occurring within and between members of each discipline. The utility of GROD as a discourse-fingerprinting tool was demonstrated by applying it to the IGERT research forums described above. In collaboration with researchers from the Rutgers R.B. Davis Institute for Learning, these forums were videotaped and analyzed to identify patterns of discourse within the discussions following each presentation. Questionnaires and focus groups were also employed. Of interest were the extent to which disciplinary boundaries are traversed and how information is disseminated and received among a group of colleagues who are from disparate disciplinary backgrounds representing different experience levels. Patterns of discourse were identified across a series of 15 forums. The extent to which integrative ideas or concepts developed synergistically from disparate disciplinary contributions was examined.

A major application of the discourse-fingerprinting tool, GROD, may be in identifying patterns of discussion within forums and their underlying mechanisms. A second major application is locating signature patterns of truly cross-disciplinary discussions that can be further investigated to search for the emergence of new integrative concepts. Further, this research tool may prove useful at identifying additional ways to better structure interdisciplinary educational experiences and can be transferred to other contexts.

Publications and Conference Proceedings: Anthony, L.J., Palius, M.F., Maher, C.A, Moghe, P.V. Using Discourse Analysis to Study a Cross-Disciplinary Learning Community: Insights from an IGERT Training Program. J. Engineering Education 96: 141-156 (2007).

Anthony, L.J., Palius, M.F., Moghe, P.V. Reflections from the Authors: Using Discourse Analysis to Study a Cross-Disciplinary Learning Community. Annals of Research on Engineering Education 3(2) Summer Issue Online (2007).

Anthony, L.J., Palius, M.F., Maher, C.A., and Moghe, P.V. Discourse-based communities of practice: Developing graduate students’ abilities to communicate their research across disparate disciplines and experience levels. Awarded the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Graduate Studies Division’s 2008 Best Paper ASEE Annual Meeting, June 2008, Pittsburgh, PA.

Palius, M.F., Anthony, L.J., Maher, C.A., and Moghe, P.V. Using Discourse Analysis to Study Learning Communities in Cross-Disciplinary and other Divergent Contexts. “New Trends in Methodologies,” 11th International Congress on Mathematics Education, July 2008, Monterrey, Mexico.