My Journey Through IDS: A Progression of Interest and Intellect

I’m sitting down at the dinner table with my family during Winter Break, and my mom asks,

“Hey daughter o’ mine, what are you studying these days?”

“Well, I’ve actually changed my major again,” I replied.

“There’s a shocker. To what?”

“Interdisciplinary Studies.”

“What’s that all about?”

“It’s uhh, little bit of this, little bit of that… y’know.”

“So you have no idea?”


    That was about my understanding of interdisciplinary studies. Before entering in this course, I thought interdisciplinary studies meant studying a ‘little bit of this, a little bit of that,’ in order to get a more well rounded, and possibly less tunnel focused education. Boy, has that changed.

A faculty member suggested this degree to me, as I expressed my passions for environmental science and adventure education, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll give it a go. I thought it was a degree for those who were a little unsure about what they wanted to do. I thought it was for folks who had too many interests, and a hard time focusing on just one. I was quickly humbled on the first day when I was told the opposite: that this in fact was a course and a degree for those who had super future seeing powers, and knew what they wanted to be, but PSU couldn’t match their needs. Oh man.

After a lot of advisor meetings, and a healthy amount of soul searching, I isolated my most fervent interests, and decided on a career path: Environmental Education. From there, I dove into the IDS course in order to broaden my lack of understanding on the topic. By reading and responding to Repko and various scholarly articles, my understanding evolved. I learned about complexity, ideas of common ground, different types of educational communities, and how the disciplines fit within.  I’d now define interdisciplinarity as a progressive blend of related fields that allow people to wear multiple hats and transfer ideas across disciplines in order to address complex issues. Instead of the “fruit bowl” idea that I came in thinking this was all about, I’ve since realized that this field is a blend, rather than a mix. It engages the best parts of each field, allows each to be highlighted and revered, and gives academics a common language in which to speak and solve problems with.

As I mentioned, I’ve been highly influenced by the texts that we’ve examined in class. One of the theories that I’ve incorporated into my program is complexity. In outdoor environmental education, we’ll be talking about global issues such as climate change and ocean acidification, and those are big, complex ideas. In order to inspire kids to tackle these issues, we need to isolate the moving parts of the issues, find connections, and think about all the different fields and stakeholders that play a role. Understanding this idea of complexity helped me choose classes that will give me different perspectives that I can use when tackling large and multifaceted issues with kids.

Another principle that I believe strongly in is the idea that specialization can lead to tunnel vision and can hinder creative breakthroughs. There’s nothing wrong with becoming an expert in something; in fact I applaud those with ph.D’s in obscure fields. However, I think it can be difficult to relate to those in other fields and solve problems with them if you are only versed in one thing. People can get sucked into what they already know well and be averse to opening their mind to new ideas. With that in mind, I made sure I incorporated fields that were different enough that gave me broad perspectives, but similar enough that I can transfer ideas within each field and develop a loose, but significant specialization that won’t give me tunnel vision.

Not only is interdisciplinarity important in my own life, but it’s also imperative to universities and on a greater scale as well.  If you think about it, besides profit, what do universities want to achieve? They want to produce well rounded, marketable, employable students. What better way to do that than by giving them an interdisciplinary degree? They can master any interview, appeal to countless jobs, all because of their breadth and depth of experience. On a global, social scale, this means that society is gaining competent, tolerant and experienced members. People who study interdisciplinary studies are more likely to accept and entertain ideas from folks from other disciplines, find common ground among their colleagues, and problem solve efficiently.

When I leave PSU, I want to make big changes. Like most teachers, I want to inspire students to make a positive impact. I want them to be captivated by learning, and take it upon themselves to learn independently of school as well. I want my students to be the ones asking the hard questions, staying up late with friends to have philosophical conversations, and I want them to feel fulfilled. Of course, I want the same thing for myself, too. I want a meaningful job, I want my work to be dynamic and creative, and I hope I can learn a lot as I go. I hope I’m constantly improving my craft, constantly applying new theories and tricks. I hope I can stay fascinated.IMG_6617.JPG

I hope the same things for the future of IDS as well. I have a (rather educated) hunch that IDS is going to explode, and soon. At PSU, it seems to be catching fire, especially within the new cluster system. I think it’s extremely progressive, so a lot of students are going to catch on; students shouldn’t settle for things that they’re not passionate about. I see so many of my friends bumming out about a major that isn’t right for them, and they feel like it’s too late to do anything. I don’t want students to feel like they’re wasting their money for an education that someone else picked out for them. Education should be extremely democratic and that students should get to choose what they study. I think their interests should be constantly engaged, and IDS does just that for students here. Being able to design your field of study seems like it’s what college should be, and with PSU’s program as a standout example, I hope a lot of schools follow suit.


Photo above: This is an action shot of a press conference I held with my co-president Victoria Santry (to the left of me), to advocate for 100% renewable energy on campus by 2030. This is the kind of change I want to be making. Real, tangible change. Beside me are a social scientist, an ecologist, and a renewable energy technician. Working with them, I truly felt like an inter disciplinarian, because I was helping to amalgamate and communicate the ideas of three completely different professionals into one in order to solve a complex issue.

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A Larger Whole: Complex Systems in IDS

Think about the materials you used in school as a child. Pencils, paper, picture books – these are all simple items. Now, think about how the materials given to you changed over time; paper became a laptop computer, pencils became keyboards, picture books; novels. You went from studying “History,” to “20th Century Wars,” from “Math,” to “Applied Calculus.” What happened? Your knowledge expanded, and your tools increased in complexity.


This is a key concept of Interdisciplinary Studies, as explained by William Newell, author of  “A Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies.” He outlines a theory that is already engrained in our core as academics. We’ve studied multiple disciplines, used intricate tools, and at one point or another, blended ideas and concepts across fields.

However, the “blended” approach is not always our go-to solution when we’re faced with problems. We tend to “study the individual facets or sub-systems,” rather than “developing specific, whole, complex systems to study such phenomena,” (1). In other words, we have trouble with the cohesion of the facets we study.

A complex system, as suggested by Newell, can be likened to a map with multiple GIS layers, sub-systems, components and non-linear connections. It is, in short, complex. It’s how we recognize these connections, and how we understand the links between our work in this system, that matters in solving problems.
Take climate change, for example. That’s a problem and a half. There are billions of stakeholders, some concerned with budgets and spending, some concerned with the natural world, some concerned with the wind turbines that are going to block their backyard ocean view. This is a complex system. And there’s no simple solution. There’s this “distinctive self-organizing, overall pattern or set of patterns of behavior that gives the system its identity,” and to csm_melting-ice-polar-bear-on-2063111_16391916d7isolate this/these, and then integrate, is no easy task (7).

Yet, with a problem such as climate change, it’s imperative to look at the sub-systems like economics, natural capital, and human happiness in order to find a solution. Each system has to be considered and then integrated with the others.

Newell closes by assuring that if “complex systems theory indeed permits us to visualize each step in the integrative process and to determine how well we integrated, it will have amply demonstrated its usefulness for inter disciplinarians,” (22).

Now we march forth in our expansion of knowledge and tool building. We will progress in our methods, welcome the integration of ideas and disciplines into our problem solving, and become fruitfully aware of the efficacy of such an approach.

Works cited:

Newell, William. “The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies.” (n.d.): n. pag. Miami University. Web.


Climate change responses are up to us

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