The NSF’s ‘cool’ project: a charrette assesses interdisciplinary graduate education, with surprising results

kimcoulter.jpgEditor’s note: today’s entry has been written by Kimberly Coulter, the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s new Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) administrative coordinator. Kim will be developing entries for GlobalHigherEd from time to time, which we are very happy about given her knowledge base. Today’s entry links most closely to be previous entries by Gisèle Yasmeen (‘Articulating the value proposition of the Humanities’), Barbara Czarniawska (‘The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden’), and Susan Robertson (‘A creative combination: adding MBAs and art schools together to increase innovation’).


‘Interdisciplinarity’ in higher education is not only ‘in’—it’s institutionalized. In the last ten years, collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries has been valorized in university strategic plans and research foundation calls for proposals. The buzzword promises to spark scientific breakthroughs and ignite innovations. But how?

Based on the assumption that interdisciplinary collaboration can be trained, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has made a formidable investment in its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program since 1997. Now at 125 sites, IGERT programs offer students interdisciplinary training along with $30,000/year stipends, tuition, and fees for five years of a doctoral program in the sciences. The IGERT program aims:

to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education, for students, faculty, and institutions, by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

rhoten4small1.jpgBut what, exactly, does such a fertile environment look like? At a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference on The Future of Interdisciplinarity, a provocative keynote address from Diana Rhoten challenged assumptions. Rhoten is Director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Sciences Research Council, and is currently on loan to the NSF as program director in the areas of Virtual Organizations and Learning & Workforce Development for the Office of Cyberinfrastructure. In a previous study of interdisciplinary research centers and programs across higher education (the article can be downloaded here), Rhoten had found that many “interdisciplinary” initiatives failed to reconceptualize disciplinary traditional modes into an integrative model. She observed that real collaboration—defined as working together from start to finish—was rare.

At the Madison conference, Rhoten reported results of a new NSF-sponsored micro-study testing for effects of IGERT training on student performance. The study used an innovative—even ‘cool’—methodology: 48 IGERT and non-IGERT students at early and late stages of their graduate programs were invited to participate in an environmental research design ‘charrette’ weekend at the Snowbird ski resort in the mountains (see below) of Utah. Only after students’ arrival did researchers inform them that the true object of study would be their collaborative processes. Students were grouped into interdisciplinary groups of six: two groups each of junior IGERT students, senior IGERT students, junior non-IGERT students, and senior non-IGERT students. Each group was tasked with working together to produce and present a seven page research proposal on ecosystem services. Students were allowed to do Internet research but could not make outside contacts.

snowbird.jpgAs the students worked, observers made narrative field notes on how they evaluated each other’s ideas and used each others’ talents and skills (both participants and observers were aware of the group’s IGERT identity). At the end of the weekend, ten blind experts from different sectors assessed the groups’ proposals and presentations on intellectual merit and broader impact per NSF standards, as well as disciplinary and interdisciplinary quality. So although this study yielded rich observational data, these data relied on an undeniably small sample of students working with peers at the training stage of their careers.

Still, the results are surprising. Overall, the experts were astonished by the high quality research design proposals. Yet junior IGERT students outperformed the others in every way, followed by the non-IGERT students. Rhoten suggested that as students’ GRE scores had been considered, this disparity could not have been an artifact of previous ability. She summarized the observations thus: the best junior IGERT team had an optimistic leader with gentle critics, and had framed the task as research. By contrast, the senior IGERT students (whose proposal and presentation received the lowest scores) framed the task as collaboration. The senior IGERT students assumed they would perform well, and appeared to enjoy being studied. They discussed how to cope with conflict, yet couldn’t get traction, and their results were vague and incomplete.

She does not conclude that IGERTs are a misinvestment, but rather that these results beg questions: Did overconfidence and familiarity poison the senior IGERT students? Had IGERT training replaced students’ assertiveness and results-orientation with a focus on inclusivity and the cooperative process? These questions, she suggested, may guide us to an improved IGERT program structure. The study’s most striking result was the powerful impression the charrette activity made on both students and researchers. Rhoten beamed about the charrette as a both a methodology and as a learning tool; students, she said, raved about the learning experience. Rhoten ventured that perhaps IGERTs should not take the form of five-year programs, but rather be intensive, collaborative periodic experiences with space and time in between them—like the charrette.

This insight about the charrette is powerful because it reminds us of interdisciplinarity’s goal. The charrette mimics the deadline-driven, temporary, problem-oriented projects for which scientists are being trained. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is, in its essence, the modus operandi of the flexible, post-Fordist ‘project’ unit of economic action. In their 1976 research on theater production, Goodman and Goodman (reference below) explain a “project” as involving a:

set of diversely skilled people working together on a complex task over a limited period of time…. [especially] in cases where the task is complex and cannot be decomposed in detail autonomously ex ante ‘members must keep interrelating with one another in trying to arrive at viable solutions’.

To trade ideas productively, each participant must bring knowledge from a “home base” and stimulating ideas to the project network. The challenge for institutions is to find a balance between the stability of an institutional context and the rigidity of institutionalized “lock-in.” As economic geographer Gernot Grabher argues in Regional Studies (reference below), “transient collaborative arrangements and more enduring organizational and institutional arrangements” are interdependent—“‘Cool’ projects, indeed, rely on ‘boring’ institutions”.

Clearly, the NSF has the capacity to impact not only the scientific training, but also the attitudes and professional orientations of new generations of scientists. Effective interdisciplinary collaboration needs individuals with rigorous disciplinary grounding, creativity, and communication skills; these require a mix of stability, resources, and conventional training. Yet the current IGERT model, which values the institutionalization of five-year programs emphasizing collaboration, may not be the most effective way to cultivate flexibility and resourcefulness. As the Snowbird charrette demonstrates, perhaps more ‘cool’ projects—transient, face-to-face project-events in inspiring locations—can set the scene for successful learning and quality scientific production.


R. A. Goodman and L. P. Goodman, “Some management issues in temporary systems: a study of professional development and manpower—the theatre case,” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 (1976): 494-501, esp. 494 and 495, as cited in G. Grabher, “Cool projects, boring institutions: temporary collaboration in social context,” Regional Studies 36.3 (2002): 205–14, esp. 207-8.

Kimberly Coulter