The first “Big Ideas” course originated with the astronomy course “Life in the Universe,” which explored the origins of the Universe and the formation of the solar system.  The instructors realized the course would benefit from experts in other fields who contribute information about DNA and early forms of life on Earth. Led by Cornelia Lang, The Origins of Life in the Universe is a two-semester course taught by 4 to 5 instructors each semester. The instructors are professors of:

  • Anthropology (Russell L. Ciochon and Robert G.  Franciscus),
  • Astronomy (Lead Instructor Cornelia Lang and Robert L. Mutel),
  • Biology (Andrew Forbes and John Logsdon),
  • Earth and Environmental Science (David Peate, Christopher Brochu, and Ann Budd), and
  • Rhetoric - Honors Section (Matt Gilchrist).

Instructor Meena Khandelwal working with students during class.
Meena Khandelwal’s course, “People and the Environment: Technology, Culture, and Social Justice” emerged from an interdisciplinary faculty group researching the intersections of engineering and cultural questions in the introduction of solar cookers in India.  The one-semester course is taught by Professors of 
  • Anthropology (Lead Instructor Meena Khandelwal and Matthew E. Hill),
  • Geography and Sustainability Sciences (Marc Linderman),
  • Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (H.S. Udaykumar), and
  • Urban and Regional Planning (Jerry Anthony).

The experiences of Lang and Khandelwal corroborate scholarly writing that highlights how interdisciplinary team-teaching with an active-learning focus benefits both students and faculty:

  • Students are able to work closely with several experts in a variety of fields.  
  • Additional faculty can help to identify and overcome disciplinary “bottlenecks” – aspects of a discipline that are particularly difficult for novices. 
  • Students develop an intrinsic interest in new fields and seek out additional courses in disciplines they first encountered in a Big Ideas course.
  • Since the class meetings are planned and attended by all instructors, faculty members improve their teaching through peer mentoring.  
  • Faculty members report their own professional development – in both teaching and research – is enhanced through discussions about Big Ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries.