The Dupont Interdisciplinary Sciences Learning Laboratories (ISLL Lab) at the University of Delaware are designed so that student learning is the center of attention, rather than instruction. Classrooms are designed for Interdisciplinary "Problem Based Learning" (I-PBL), rather than lecturing. Our goal is to engage students in small groups that investigate problems drawn from real-world situations, usually focusing on a contemporary issue (such as sustainability, loss of biodiversity, global warming, or production of alternative energy) or a controversy in the current research literature. With collaboration of an professor, students (1) pose soluble problems, (2) find the concepts and information that they need to solve the problem, (3) design and perform experiments in the adjacent laboratories, (4) analyze results, (5) visualize their analyzed data, (6) present their interpretations to the peers, and (7) participate in peer review. In contrast to hearing about science in a typical lecture, students are encouraged to learn to do science themselves and understand the culture of science in terms of respect for peer review, originality, and rigorous scholarship. We have equipped the I-PBL classrooms and labs with exceptional new technology that helps students develop research-like experiences in classes with real-time acquisition of complex data, image and video analysis, and statistical hypothesis testing. The I-PBL learning studios seat a maximum of only 48 students; thus, the experience is similar to what many think of as an Honors experience, but it is available to each student.
The University of Delaware has been famous for many years for its pioneering work in developing PBL. The major difference that the ISE Lab architecture makes is that these learning studios emphasize the scientific laboratory experience with recitation, lectures, and discussions occurring in a single location. In addition, we are making three other major changes. First, multiple disciplines meet in two-hour blocks per day so that there is time to explore interdisciplinary problems that integrate the perspectives of two or more disciplines. Second, we have moved from professors lecturing in one building, graduate teaching assistants leading labs in a different building, and undergraduate teaching assistants leading recitation/problem sessions in a third building. Besides this team now sharing a common space, throughout all activities, a "preceptor" will be present. This is a new role that we are introducing in ISE Lab, to complement and support faculty members, Graduate Teaching Assistants, and undergraduate Peer-Led Team Leaders (PLTL). Preceptors work directly with students, help to mentor the Graduate Teaching Assistants and undergraduate PLTL tutors, and bring continuity to the range of different classroom activities. Thus, instead of these activities occurring in different buildings at different times with different people in a tag-team like process, students will have the continuity of a relationship with a professional dedicated to helping them learn and knows them and their talents that they bring to collaborations. Third, we are equipping labs and I-PBL studios with contemporary technology such as: digital video microscopes that wirelessly can transmit images and videos to large screen monitors, to student laptops, to laboratory iPads, or to cloud storage for analysis with quantitative image and video analysis software; real-time data acquisition devices with multiple probes for biology, chemistry, and physics; statistical software; mathematical modeling; 3D projection; and "maker-labs" with laser cutters, 3D printers, and 3D scanners that enable innovative design.
Why do all this? First, the problems that students will face in their career will necessarily involve contributions from multiple disciplines. Second, these careers and problems will require a suite of what are being heralded by the National Research Council (2012) as twenty-first century skills:
"(1) Adaptability: The ability and willingness to cope with uncertain, new, and rapidly changing conditions on the job, including responding effectively to emergencies or crisis situations and learning new tasks, technologies, and procedures. Adaptability also includes handling work stress; adapting to different personalities, communication styles, and cultures; and physical adaptability to various indoor or outdoor work environments (Houston, 2007; Pulakos et al., 2000). (2) Complex communication/social skills: Skills in processing and interpreting both verbal and nonverbal information from others in order to respond appropriately. A skilled communicator is able to select key pieces of a complex idea to express in words, sounds, and images, in order to build shared understanding (Levy and Murnane, 2004). Skilled communicators negotiate positive outcomes with customers, subordinates, and superiors through social perceptiveness, persuasion, negotiation, instructing, and service orientation (Peterson et al., 1999). (3) Nonroutine problem solving: A skilled problem solver uses expert thinking to examine a broad span of information, recognize patterns, and narrow the information to reach a diagnosis of the problem. Moving beyond diagnosis to a solution requires knowledge of how the information is linked conceptually and involves metacognition—the ability to reflect on whether a problem-solving strategy is working and to switch to another strategy if it is not working (Levy and Murnane, 2004). It includes creativity to generate new and innovative solutions, integrating seemingly unrelated information, and entertaining possibilities that others may miss (Houston, 2007). (4) Self-management/self-development: The ability to work remotely, in virtual teams; to work autonomously; and to be self-motivating and self-monitoring. One aspect of self-management is the willingness and ability to acquire new information and skills related to work (Houston, 2007). (5) Systems thinking: The ability to understand how an entire system works; how an action, change, or malfunction in one part of the system affects the rest of the system; adopting a "big picture" perspective on work (Houston, 2007). It includes judgment and decision making, systems analysis, and systems evaluation as well as abstract reasoning about how the different elements of a work process interact (Peterson et al., 1999)."
Third, we need to redress a variety of problems currently facing university STEM education. These challenges include the need to increase retention of declared STEM majors, to decrease the disparities of achievement amongst talented members of historically underrepresented groups, to improve quantitative numeracy, to move beyond the reductionism of silo approaches, and to better prepare students to be collaborators, leaders, and innovators who can cope with the flood of data, the complexity of a networked world, and the globalization of our work.