Creating Interdisciplinary Solutions

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Many of our most difficult challenges are too complex to solve through individual disciplines. Biologists cannot stop pandemics on their own. Nor can engineers, on their own, tackle global change. With NC State’s Think and Do spirit, Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions encourages students to think about current and future problems interdisciplinarily even before they arrive on campus. The free online course helps connect students to the greater NC State community, while bringing together diverse perspectives and disciplines on a common problem.

Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions started in the summer of 2020, giving incoming first-year students a chance to connect with NC State during the middle of a global pandemic. The first iteration of the course explored the history, biology and societal impacts of pandemics, and students were exposed, virtually, to many NC State faculty (and some alumni) from a variety of disciplines.

There has never been a course like Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions at NC State before – a course that each year involves presenters from virtually every college on campus and is available to thousands of incoming students. 

“Historically, universities have tended to focus on disciplinary education. You learn one thing — for example, biology — really well. But ‘wicked’ problems impact the world in a way that transcends the expertise of any one person or field,” said Rob Dunn, interim senior vice provost for University Interdisciplinary Programs, and one of the organizers of the course. “To make progress dealing with such problems, we have to rely on an interdisciplinary approach. This course demonstrates to students the value of knowing your subject well, but also of being able to work with people who know different subjects.”

The Future of Food

This year’s version of Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions, is the Future of Food. It will challenge students to approach global food issues in the context of the history of food, making more food, next generation food, food equity and justice, and food and sustainability. As Jane Lubischer, assistant department head of the Department of Biological Sciences put it, “We will need to feed 10 billion people in the coming decades; the wicked problem is how we do so in a way that is just, sustainable and sufficient, while at the same time ensuring the food that is being produced is also nutritious and, because people don’t eat food they don’t like, delicious.” 

“This course will guide students through the multifaceted story of food through online learning technologies, alongside a diverse, multidisciplinary team of scholars, ready to address the complex challenges associated with food,” said Melissa Ramirez, associate teaching professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “It will be exciting for students to take a look at ideas from a wide range of perspectives, while reflecting on their own interests and goals. We want the students to see perspectives that are new to them, but also to see themselves and their interests reflected in at least some of the perspectives and approaches.” 

Dunn added, “if everything is working well in the course, we want students to both feel, with at least some of the experts, ‘Hey, they think about this like me’ but also, in other parts of the course, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought about food like that.’”

And, as Jason Flores, associate teaching professor in the Department of Biological Sciences points out, even though the course is about challenges related to the future of food, the stories faculty tell about food are filled with hope and pleasure, “the hope that what we do together can really help to make our collective future better and the pleasures of learning more about food in our daily lives — for example, its history, its flavors and its science.” 

In the Wicked Problems courses that have run to date, students have found that the interdisciplinary approach to the course has changed their perspective not only on the topic of the course, but also how they think about the work that they will do at NC State. 

The self-paced course will run during Summer Session II, from June 27 through July 29. All incoming first-year and transfer students are automatically added to the Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions course. Participants will see the course listed when they log into https://wolfware.ncsu.edu starting May 18, although they will not be able to get started on the course until June 27.

Videos from previous courses are available to anyone, at NC State and beyond. The NC State University Libraries and The Science House are working to make it easier for high school students to get a jump start on their college experience through these videos. Anyone with questions may email wolfpack-solutions@ncsu.edu

As Dunn put it, “While the full experience of the course is something we have designed for NC State students, we make the videos available to all because we need all the help we can get from people all around North Carolina and around the world in tackling these problems.”

During the live course, all students will have multiple opportunities to engage in real time with instructors and experts from across campus. Upon completion of the course, students earn two NC State credit hours toward their degrees.

Supporting Interdisciplinarity

It takes an interdisciplinary team to solve wicked problems. As it turns out, it also takes an interdisciplinary team to teach the Wicked Problems course. Many minds came together to make Wicked Problems. The course includes faculty from across campus and two core instructors, Ramirez and Flores. 

The course would not exist without a strong team at DELTA. DELTA is like the magician behind the curtain, whose work is largely invisible to the course’s students and yet makes everything coherent, connected and accessible. 

Behind the scenes, DELTA works with faculty to help tell their stories; records, formats and edits their videos and podcasts; produces graphics and visuals to accompany them; connects relevant videos to each other and then works with the instructors to ensure the resulting media integrate with the overall design of the course. In addition, DELTA works closely with Ramirez and Flores to construct and deliver the course via Moodle.  

Separately, DELTA works with other teams to create the website for the course. Instructors collaborate with DELTA to create social media about the course. The final product is organized in such a way that the course, with its stories told by faculty and other scholars, ideally feels like one connected experience. As Cathi Dunnigan, lead instructional designer with DELTA said, “Students don’t really meet us in this process, but behind the scenes, many DELTA employees work to make the course happen. For many of us, it is one of the things, or even the thing, at NC State that we have done that we are most proud about. It is really a passion project.”

“There is simply no way to accomplish this massively interdisciplinary teaching effort without DELTA, which serves all colleges and has the expertise to create an online course like this,” said Jane Lubischer, associate head of the Department of Biological Sciences. And the full course experience depends on partnerships with others on campus. Enrollment Management and Services works every year to connect students to the course and was key in getting initial approval to create and offer Wicked Problems. The NC State University Libraries is involved through a team led by Karen Ciccone, lead librarian for public science, and will host on-campus food tasting and talks in the fall that build on the course. Ciccone has also led in the creation of a site to share out Wicked Problems presentations more publicly. 

Dunn added, “This whole team — the faculty presenters, the amazing instructors, the Libraries, DELTA and more — is one of the best teams, perhaps the best team, I’ve worked with in my career. This is not to say that there aren’t hard days, but those hard days are in service of a product of which we are all very proud, a product that no subset of us could ever have created on our own.”

Faculty and Student Engagement

Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions could not happen without the many faculty who are willing to contribute their time and expertise. “Our presenters have been phenomenal at presenting in a manner accessible to all incoming students, knowing that these students have a variety of backgrounds and interests,” noted Lubischer. Wicked Problems provides an opportunity for faculty to share a quick introduction to their discipline with (potentially) all incoming students, many of whom may not have considered studying in that area before completing Wicked Problems. Students have even considered new minors as a result of their Wicked Problems experience. “This is a powerful model that creates a great learning environment for students and collaborative opportunities for faculty” according to Wicked Problems presenter Holly Hurlburt, professor of history and assistant dean and director of academic enrichment programs in University College.

Over 1,500 students completed one of the first two Wicked Problems offerings, and instructors hope that even more will engage with the 2022 offering. Student feedback, collected by the DELTA assessment team and through student reflections embedded into the course, indicates that students credit Wicked Problems with preparing them to navigate Moodle, used in many of their courses at NC State. Students who engage with Wicked Problems also have a greater appreciation for the value of interdisciplinarity and general education.

What’s Next

There are many next steps for Wicked Problems. In the fall, the most conspicuous of these steps will be a series of food-themed events on campus that broaden the discussions of the future of food so as to include the whole campus. These discussions will be coordinated by the NC State University Libraries and will include, according to Ciccone, conversations on meat alternatives, insect proteins, extreme possibilities of genetic engineering, and near-future prospects and problems for genetically engineered  foods. Through tasting events and talks, the programs will engage the university community in a broader discussion of the future of food and NC State’s role in that future. 

This will also be a chance for students who took the Wicked Problems course this year to connect in person with faculty and begin their own work toward reimagining the future of food. Meanwhile, the Wicked team will begin planning for next year’s course, which will focus on the future of global health, in partnership with NC State’s interdisciplinary Global Health Initiative. The course will take a holistic perspective on global health, one that considers the connectedness of human health, domestic animal health, and biodiversity and health. 

Looking forward, the Office of University Interdisciplinary Programs is working with the Wicked Problems team to build on the course across NC State’s curriculum. 

As Lubischer notes: “We have already seen individual instructors on campus link their teaching to what is being taught in the course. We are interested in more formally building the course experience into our campus programming. Imagine an experience where a student starts in Wicked Problems and then, across their courses and experiences outside of the classroom, continues to learn more about that particular Wicked Problem. The Wicked Problems team wants to hear from faculty and programs interested in partnering in this way.” 

The interdisciplinary team behind Wicked Problems hopes to keep the course on the summer session schedule every year. It is also offered over winter break for students starting at NC State in the spring. There’s no shortage of issues out there, and NC State’s faculty, staff and students possess the passion and drive to be true problem-solvers using their knowledge to advance the common good.

“Difficult problems rarely can be solved by relying on the tools of one discipline,” said Vice Provost of DELTA Donna Petherbridge. “So many challenges the world is facing today — climate change, social and political unrest, poverty, disease — require a multidisciplinary perspective in order to truly define and begin to solve a problem. We hope to continue to equip students to take on these challenges and more through Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions.” 

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