Duke IDEAS is a natural culmination of recent conversations about the University’s curriculum, namely a desire for integrative learning—a remedy for the disjointed education students receive inside and outside the classroom—and a hope for interdisciplinarity to be pursued with care. This new interdisciplinary program, which is an acronym for Interdisciplinary Education and Society, hopes to bring together faculty and students from all 10 schools of the University, offering undergraduate and graduate certificates. As of Fall 2013, students can choose to study one of five broad themes: Brain and Society; Education and Human Development; Energy; Global Health; and Information, Society and Culture. These themes were created based on the society’s most pressing contemporary problems and, given Duke’s unique resources, the problems we are best equipped to tackle.
We laud the thoughtful structure of Duke IDEAS, especially since many interdisciplinary programs lack such seriousness. Each Duke IDEAS theme will have a gateway course, modules of other required courses and ultimately the opportunity to work on a project team with graduate students and faculty. This provides a fantastic opportunity for students to collaborate with people across different disciplines, expertises, ages and backgrounds. This plan—which establishes rigorous and sequenced course requirements as well as dedicated Duke IDEAS academic advisors—balances diligence with flexibility, mitigating some of our concerns regarding interdisciplinary programs.
Again, we like that Duke IDEAS does not adopt a “choose your own adventure” approach to interdisciplinarity. Students should not be able to fully customize their education as there are correct ways to master a field—hence the required courses before entering a project team. Students will be truly ready to contribute when, senior year, the time to join a project team finally rolls around.
Duke IDEAS wisely coexists with the traditional model of selecting majors rather than replacing it. Maintaining majors will ensure students receive adequate training in one field before examining its intersection with other fields. As long as it preserves the sanctity of specialization, Duke IDEAS will enhance a student’s experience within his or her major.
We predict that this program will be successful in part because it will receive generous funding from a new gift. This will ensure that Duke can afford successful implementation of Duke IDEAS. Specifically, Duke IDEAS should not put an excessive strain on faculty time and resources.
Project teams are a promising laboratory for interdisciplinary and integrated learning. Structured, pre-existing projects makes it easier for students to get involved with research, as it is difficult to develop a research question and assemble a team alone. Hands-on collaboration is a useful skill and will prepare Duke students well for life after graduation. But more importantly, collaboration and mentorship from faculty and graduate students produce an unparalleled educational experience.
Duke IDEAS is well-built. The Duke IDEAS Advisory Council addressed vital concerns: the future role of majors, rigor through required coursework and financial and institutional support for faculty and students. Nevertheless, some philosophical concerns remain—primarily the unresolved tension between the liberal arts and the job market as well as the potential neglect of the humanities with interdisciplinarity. We address these hazards in Tuesday’s editorial.