Beyond Boundaries gives students, faculty, space to experiment

older students chat with a first-year student
Arthur Culbert (left) talks with Edmund O. Acosta and first-year student Rob Haber during a break in the class “When I’m 64: Transforming Your Future,” which is co-taught by Brian Carpenter, of Arts & Sciences, Nancy Morrow-Howell, of the Brown School, and Susy Stark, of the School of Medicine. Culbert and Acosta are two of 15 members of STL Village who are taking the course along with students, offering them a real-world perspective on issues of aging and changing demographics. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Archeologists teach alongside engineers. Artists collaborate with doctors. Senior citizens and teenagers share in discussion groups.

The Beyond Boundaries interdisciplinary program at Washington University in St. Louis offers first-year students a wide array of experiences: exposure to new concepts and people; opportunities to learn from some of the world’s leading scholars across a spectrum of disciplines; and something a bit less tangible.

“It is just a great deal of fun,” said Tristram Kidder, the Edward S. and Tedi Macias Professor and chair of anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

Education experts have praised to students the academic value of an interdisciplinary education, which breaks down barriers between disciplines for a more holistic experience. Students, however, are not the only ones who benefit, faculty members say. Developing and teaching these courses can also provide unique opportunities to faculty members who choose to look outside of their fields for collaborators.

It’s all in an effort to show first-year students that “solving complex problems requires multiple disciplinary lenses,” said Marion Crain, vice provost and the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law.

“These courses offer faculty a chance to get out of the silo of working alone and of teaching alone in a single discipline,” Crain said.

Courses such as “The Art of Medicine” bring together disciplines that might seem unusual matches. The course is co-taught by Rebecca Messbarger, director of Medical Humanities and professor of Italian, history, art history, performing arts, and women, gender, and sexuality studies, all in Arts & Sciences; and Patricia Olynyk, director of the Graduate School of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and the Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art. Messbarger says in the course video that the course touches “the art of compassion, the art of listening, the art of imaging,” in a class spanning the history of art and science through the ages.

“Gender, Youth and Global Health,” co-taught by Jessica Levy, senior lecturer at the Brown School, and Caline Mattar, an instructor at the School of Medicine, explores the ways gender and gender differences affect different aspects of health, particularly for young people. The course is organized through and sponsored by the Institute for Public Health.

In many ways, however, Kidder’s course titled “Earth’s Future: Causes and Consequences of Climate Change,” is the poster child for the benefits of interdisciplinary education. There’s the scientific aspect of an unstable climate, and there are also political, economic and psychological components. The course, developed and taught by Kidder and Brent Williams, associate professor in engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, brings in faculty speakers from across the department, giving first-year students a broad look at all of these issues.

Kidder is right there with his students, enjoying the process of discovery.

“We get a semester’s worth of brilliant scholars teaching us about different topics and getting their perspectives,” all while watching how they teach, he said. “There’s a pedagogical strategy I can learn while I’m learning from these people about their field of expertise. For me, it’s a lesson in teaching, and it’s a lesson in scholarship.

“I’m an archeologist, I deal with a lot of dead stuff,” Kidder said. “It has been dead, it’s going to continue to be dead … it’s never going to be anything but dead. Interdisciplinary collaboration helps me think about ways to make my research interests contemporary.”

The Beyond Boundaries courses also teach students skills they can use beyond the classroom and brings the outside world to them. “When I’m Sixty-Four: Transforming Your Future” explores the ways in which aging is — and isn’t — considered across a variety of disciplines.

The course is co-taught by Nancy Morrow-Howell, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy in the Brown School; Brian Carpenter, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences; and Susy Stark, associate professor of occupational therapy, neurology and social work at the School of Medicine. It consists of first-year students as well as students from St. Louis Village, older adults who bring their experience and perspective to the table, informing the students and professors about the topics they are concerned with.

“Aging in society is the perfect interdisciplinary subject,” Morrow-Howell said. “But everybody thinks that about their field, right?” She collaborates with experts from medicine and public health to architecture and law. “Exploring aging is so much better with different disciplines,” she said. “It really is a multiplier.”

Robert Mark Morgan, teaching professor in drama-scenic design in Arts & Sciences, had been thinking about crafting a cross-discipline course when he received an email from Provost Holden Thorp which outlined a program called “Bring Your Own Idea,” a gathering for faculty members from different disciplines to discuss a single topic. Morgan convened a group of professors to discuss how creativity was a valuable asset across their fields.

That discussion inspired “Designing Creativity: Innovation Across Disciplines,” developed with former dean of architecture Bruce Lindsey,  E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration in the Sam Fox School. In the course, students explore the wide reach of creativity through discussion and in labs, where they have fabricated stools from cardboard and crafted scripts based on the concept of failure.

Students leave the course with an understanding that creativity and design can help them in whatever field they choose. “They’re growing up in a world full of problems with no way to solve them,” Morgan said. “But design isn’t just about pretty pictures. Design can solve problems.”

And, for him, the course gives him the challenge he finds necessary to improve. “I had a wise teacher once say, ‘You live your life in stages, in plateaus and climbs.’ As much as I love stage design, I feel like, unless I have a challenge, I’m not climbing.”

There are some challenges with developing coursework that spans different disciplines, particularly for first-year students. Going forward, however, many have been worked out by the Beyond Boundaries pioneers.

In Morgan’s course, some of the initial projects weren’t quite as developed as they should’ve been: “We were still defining the class, and we were very open with the students about that,” Morgan said. That led to some days when, instead of the scheduled speaker or project, co-teacher Liz Kramerassistant director of the Office for Socially Engaged Practice at the Sam Fox School, prompted the students to discuss how they’d like to see the course evolve. Those discussions led to some concrete changes, such as adopting the Blackboard management system so students could have real-time access to their grades.

The first year of “Earth’s Future,” more than half the students dropped the course. The dilemma Kidder and Williams faced was teaching to such a broad group of students with  diverse backgrounds.

“Some students come to us science-enabled, some are science-phobic. Some of them come in social studies-enabled, some social studies-phobic,” Kidder said.

They tweaked their course to find the right balance, which meant rethinking some of the guest speakers and adding more discussion. It seems to have worked — the course has reached its 75-student capacity.

For faculty, surmounting these challenges can lead to an unparalleled opportunity: time and space to experiment.

“It’s a sustained opportunity,” said Jennifer Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of Earth & Planetary Science​s, who has worked with the provost’s office on several interdisciplinary projects. “You have at least a couple of months together, and you can really experiment. In research, we’re always worried about concrete deliverables.”

But in this kind of collaboration, the educational experience itself is the point.

Beyond first-year students, there are also Beyond  Boundaries courses for upper-level students, which can delve deeper into the tangled connections that bind seemingly disparate subjects together.
Interested in developing a Beyond Boundaries course? Contact Marion Crain at 314-935-3459, or email


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