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Student-Centered, Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning Leads to Education Innovation

Published: 24 Oct 2012

The Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management (MDIIM) at McGill University views students as critical stakeholders in university education, according to Adam Halpert, Managing Director of MDIIM. MDIIM staff and faculty engage and partner with students wherever possible. For example:

  • Students provide ongoing feedback on new educational programs.
  • Students and student organizations are encouraged to participate in or co-organize educational events.
  • When students have innovative ideas that align with the MDIIM mandate, they can approach staff for assistance in turning the ideas into reality.

MDIIM also seeks to break down disciplinary barriers and embrace multiple perspectives, says Halpert. It does this by building partnerships between various faculties at McGill. For example, MDIIM recently supported collaboration between the Desautels Faculty of Management, where it is housed, and McGill’s Department of Chemistry.

By combining student-centered learning with interdepartmental collaboration, MDIIM was able to facilitate two innovative and successful student activities, says Halpert:

Sustainable innovation: an interdisciplinary workshop and case competition

This two-day workshop brought graduate students from chemistry and management together to work collaboratively on a green chemistry case study. The workshop began with lectures on green chemistry, business logics for environmental investments, and principles of sustainable innovation. A commercial director of GreenCentre Canada, a National Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research in Green Chemistry, then presented students with a challenge: commercialize a new anti-oxidant molecule.

Working in teams of four, business and chemistry students combined their expertise to understand molecule functionality and production, identify potential markets, and devise a plan for commercialization. The proposals from each student team were evaluated and the winning team received a cash prize.

Student-professor panel on Silent Spring

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book on the dangers of synthetic pesticides, MDIIM hosted Carson’s biographer, Linda Lear. Lear gave a public lecture, then participated in a panel with an unusual composition: an undergraduate student and professor from Management and a graduate student and professor from Chemistry. Panelists discussed how Silent Spring was relevant to their lives and careers. Having student speakers on the panel helped market the event to other students and let students see how the topic is relevant to their generation.

Benefits of the approach

Adam Halpert shares the benefits of MDIIM’s approach to education:

  1. Students learn a new language: Students are traditionally educated in disciplinary silos. Collaborative, interdisciplinary activities teach students how to interact with members of another discipline: a skill that will be valuable in their careers. For example, management students wanting to commercialize innovations will need to understand the functionality, competitive advantage and production requirements of technical products.
  2. Interdisciplinary matchmaking: MDIIM invites both students and faculty to its many interdisciplinary events. The result has been a matchmaking setting for faculty across different disciplines. This networking has sparked new interdisciplinary projects, including the proposal for an undergraduate course in environmental accounting.

Advice on implementing a similar approach to education

Adam Halpert offers advice on developing student-centered, interdisciplinary education:

  1. Broaden student perspectives: Management students need to understand that other forms of value exists beyond the standard economic value taught by most business schools. By integrating management education with other subjects, such as chemistry, engineering or law, students can learn to appreciate social and ecological value as well.
  2. Build relationships: Working across disciplines requires deep and diverse relationships. Dr. Steve Maguire, Director of MDIIM, started his career as a chemical engineer, completed a PhD in management, and has a longstanding relationship with the McGill School of Environment. MDIIM and students in the Desautels Faculty of Management have profited from this history and set of relationships. MDIIM continues to build relationships with new partners, within the university and beyond.
  3. Be patient: Any form of change in a university is politically sensitive, typically requiring widespread collaboration from faculty, staff and students. Change occurs in small steps and takes time. MDIIM develops long-term plans after consultation with all relevant stakeholders and seeks to build consensus early in the planning process.
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