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Interdisciplinary Studies Programs: Preparing Students for a World of Complexity

July 25, 2013
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The 21st century’s rapid progression towards globalization has created complex world problems that require new and innovative solutions. We no longer live in a world of separate spheres, but rather witness everyday how a small event somewhere can have rapid and large effects on the other side of the world in a completely different aspect of human life. Singular viewpoints on world problems can no longer produce effective solutions as they are limited by their inability to comprehend a multi-dimensional problem.

But how do we as a society prepare for a world characterized by its complexity and rapid change?  Problem solving and the resulting solutions must be refined to reflect this complexity. While more and more degrees are being earned every year, the singular viewpoints of traditional academic disciplines alone can no longer prepare their students to grapple with the inextricably interconnected problems of today.

However, many institutions of higher education seek to bridge this gap by preparing their students for global citizenry and multi-dimensional problem solving with the introduction of Interdisciplinary Studies majors and programs. While experts often disagree on the exact definition of Interdisciplinary Studies, all agree that the harmonizing and use of the traditional methods of multiple disciplines can help create holistic solutions to today’s complex problems. With such programs students have the opportunity to tailor their own degree plans to serve the real world problems they are interested in addressing.

With the new academic year upon us, NerdScholar wanted to recognize these innovative interdisciplinary programs that prepare students for 21st century global citizenry and societal innovation. These programs fall into the categories of:

    • Interdisciplinary Studies Majors — redesigned liberal arts curriculums that focus on critical thinking and problem solving through the eyes of a variety of disciplines
    • Specific Interdisciplinary Programs — existing programs designed to unite certain disciplines in response to current real world needs
    • Build Your Own Major Programs — majors allowing flexibility for students to pursue academic interests that cannot be compensated for by traditional combinations of majors and minors

Interdisciplinary Studies Majors

 University of Texas at Austin

The Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin is an honors major with an interdisciplinary core curriculum leading to a Bachelor of the Arts Degree.  The Plan II major is a carefully designed  4-year program comprised of specific multi-disciplinary course requirements, in literature, philosophy, social sciences and natural sciences, each with a strong emphasis on problem solving, critical and analytical thinking, and communication skills, both written and oral.

While the core curriculum itself is a major, elective hours also allow students to combine another major(s) or fulfill pre-law or pre-med requirements.  With an additional year, Plan II students are even able to simultaneously complete a second degree.  In addition to the core curriculum, Plan II offers extensive professional and faculty advising, civic engagement classes and service-learning opportunities, on- and off-campus internships and study abroad options.

During the first two years of a Plan II education, students immerse themselves in a year of world literature and a year of philosophy, reading fundamental texts.  Every student chooses three thematic seminars from a wide variety of interdisciplinary topics, designed especially for Plan II and taught by the University’s most distinguished faculty.  The Plan II core also includes special courses in logic, math, biology, and physics.  In the social sciences, unique courses focused on the individual in society reflect the Plan II emphasis on education for citizenship. The capstone thesis allows students to combine areas, topics, and fields in unique ways, providing each Plan II student the opportunity to investigate an intellectual inquiry that he or she finds personally compelling and academically meaningful.

Tufts University

The Interdisciplinary Studies Major at Tufts University is designed to allow independent and self-disciplined students to pursue a degree that unites the perspectives of many disciplines, rather than focusing on just one. The coursework draws on at least two of the following academic disciplines: humanities, arts, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

Students pursuing this degree are supported by a self-created advisory committee and guided by a proposed major. Students are tasked in their proposal to not only plan their proposed major, but to also rationalize why it is inherently interdisciplinary as well as the “problem” it addresses and its “significance.”

The program is cap-stoned by a senior thesis or project. Recent topics have included “Children’s Entertainment,” “Urban Design and Development” and “Human-Computer Interaction.”

Specific Interdisciplinary Programs


NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program stands out from similar programs because of its humanistic emphasis and focus on peoples and cultures rather than the interactions between global institutions.

A two-year foundation in world literature, history, philosophy, art and science is combined with a required immersion experience junior year at one of NYU’s global academic centers located in international cities including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Tel Aviv. While all earning a B.A. in Global Liberal Studies, each student develops a concentration shaped by personal interest, their global experience and language study.

The New School

The New School has created interdisciplinary studies programs specifically designed to target key 21st century challenges—globalization, urbanism, social justice, and sustainability. The three programs, Global Studies (for more information), The Urban Program and Environmental Studies draw on the resources of 3 of the schools making up the consortium known as the New School.

Classes at Parsons The New School for Design, Eugene Lang The New School for Liberal Arts and The New School for Public Engagement work together to give students unique perspectives from combined disciplines when looking at theory, design, research, policy and practice. Because students are enrolled in only one of the schools, majors in each program can examine very different aspects of these social issues through their courses of study.


Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, offers 4 different programs in conjunction with 3 other undergraduate schools at UPenn that allow students to pursue multiple degrees in order to be better prepared for life after college.

The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology seeks to bridge the gap between technology innovation and business practices. Students of this program pursue degrees from both Wharton and Penn Engineering, allowing them to understand both the business and technical sides of their chosen industry. In the technological world of today students in programs like this will be paving the way towards new technologies and sounder business practices.

The Nursing and Health Care Management Program, offered in a partnership between Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, is designed to equip students with the necessary skills to pursue a career in healthcare. As healthcare is one of the noticeable growth areas of the 21st century, programs such as this are preparing students for a profession that is likely to become more necessary rather than obsolete.

University of Florida

Students at the University of Florida whose academic interests lie outside of traditional majors are able to pursue their interests through the Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) major.

This major allows students to build their studies around personal academic or research goals. Many IDS students choose to major in the 10 established interdisciplinary concentrations that range from Film and Media Studies to Biological Illustration. These programs allow students to adapt their coursework to their own academic interests, but provide a framework to operate within, much like a traditional major. If none of the established interdisciplinary majors fit their academic interests, IDS students have the opportunity to create their own major, bringing together at least two departments in their studies. The IDS program also offers one minor in Sustainability Studies.

Build Your Own Major Programs

Emerson College

The Individually Designed Interdisciplinary Program (IDIP) in Emerson College’s Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies allows students to build their own major. The IDIP major allows students to draw from multiple disciplines to create a curriculum around a unifying theme or question.

Developing an IDIP major requires a student to create their own advisory group, drawing on the faculty of whichever two departments their IDIP unites, as well as a coherent course plan. Recent IDIP titles include “Global Activism and Advocacy” and “Investigative Theatre for Social Change.”

As well as IDIP majors the Institute offers three minors in interdisciplinary studies: Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Global and Post-Colonial Studies and Environmental Studies. All first-year students are required to take at least one Institute Course, the subjects of which range from “Africana Thought and Practice” to “Women in Philosophy, Art & Culture” to “Making Monsters.”

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley offers 12 different interdisciplinary majors including Cognitive Science, Development Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies. These courses of study allow students to explore a topic of which pieces are generally covered by other disciplines.

While the existing interdisciplinary majors provide students with a variety of options, students can also choose the Interdisciplinary Studies Field Major (ISF). While this program is similar to other programs allowing students to build their own major, it sets itself apart by its focus on research. ISF major students work closely with faculty advisors to develop a course of study around the original research each student wishes to pursue. Students are encouraged to draw on faculty expertise from all departments related to their research. Recent thesis topics from ISF majors include: “Contemporary Warfare: El Salvador’s Gang Crisis” and “The Creation of Canonical Knowledge in the Internet Age.”

Duke University

Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University is committed to offering students interdisciplinary programs. Students who don’t feel as if they can pursue their academic goals within a traditional major can choose to build an Interdepartmental Major or design a Program II major for themselves.

The Interdepartmental Major allows students to create a course plan that draws on two Trinity College departments equally. Students who wish to pursue an Interdepartmental major must design a course plan that meets the approval of advisors and the directors of undergraduate studies in both departments. The Interdepartmental Major can be combined with another major if appropriate.

One of the oldest individualized major programs in the country (founded in 1968), Program II allows students to build their program of study from the ground up.  Program II’s interdisciplinary curriculums, designed by students themselves in consultation with faculty, are intentionally structured around a central theme or question rather than the understanding of theories and practices of a specific discipline. In 2010 a two-semester Senior Capstone Project requirement was added  as a culminating interdisciplinary experience for students.

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