Integrating knowledge is a worthy challenge

Last week, I attended a seminar in which an archaeology professor described the work of his students to catalog a collection of 5,000 Native American artifacts that was recently donated to Monmouth College. The collection is a remarkable resource to our students, who handle and study the stone artifacts, and to the broader academic community, as it represents one of the most complete and well-documented collections of Western Illinois antiquity.

Students from all majors are eligible to sign up for an archaeology laboratory, in which they learn to record, characterize and identify the various stone points that range in origin from 10,000 years to a few hundred years ago. The professor explained that undergraduate students often try to identify an artifact by matching its general appearance to pictures in a database. The process is slow, tedious and ineffective. It’s akin to finding the proverbial “needle in a haystack.”

In time, the students discover that identification is more efficient if they employ a well-designed decision tree. They ask very specific questions designed to rule out many possibilities with each question. By carefully selecting the questions (e.g., does it have flutes, is the base concave, do the chips all orient in the same direction?) and asking them in the proper order they can often make an identification through a half-dozen or so rather simple questions.

What a wonderful critical-thinking exercise! Most students in the archaeology laboratory will never again identify and catalog artifacts, but by learning how to simplify a complex problem through a series of logical, well-ordered steps they have acquired a valuable lifelong skill. It’s an excellent example of the value proposition that we at Monmouth College term “integrated learning.”

As I thought about the process of integrating knowledge across disciplines, it occurred to me that there are similarities between the archaeology lab and my discipline, chemistry. Specifically, I thought about the sophomore chemistry student who must learn to identify an organic molecule from its two-dimensional representation. Like the archaeology student, she soon discovers there is a more efficient means of identification than comparing it to thousands of pictures of known molecules.

If the sophomore chemistry student had previously spent a semester in the archaeology lab, shouldn’t she find organic nomenclature a snap?  After all, the intellectual basis of the process is very similar. Perhaps, but in my experience, students tend to treat each course and each exercise as a unique challenge. I know that as a student I missed some obvious connections.  For me, the process of identifying molecules was not unlike the process of identifying trees from leaf shapes, a skill that I had learned as a kid studying forestry in 4-H.  Unfortunately, that connection did not occur to me until years after college.

Transferring ideas and skills from one course to another or from one field to another is clearly not easy, but it is a crucial skill for those who want to solve complex problems. Unless we can transfer or—as we say at Monmouth—integrate that knowledge, we will always be limited by our inability to take every possible course and study every conceivable topic.

The integration of knowledge doesn’t just happen.  Students rarely discover it themselves, nor are most faculty members adept at it, having trained as specialists. So students go through colleges and universities putting knowledge into silos. Some claim to have interdisciplinary skills because the knowledge silos they use straddle several disciplines, but few have the ability to discern the connections between those silos. Consequently, they are not prepared to solve the complex problems that arise daily.

When faced with solving a difficult problem or performing an unfamiliar task, our natural tendency is to shy away from the challenge or plead ignorance. At Monmouth we believe we can diminish that all-too-human trait through the remarkable tool known as integrated learning. The heart of our curriculum is a series of courses that is called the Integrated Studies Sequence. In our Strategic Plan, we pledge to prepare students to solve complex problems by preparing them to integrate knowledge.

It may be the hardest thing for us to teach, since many of us were never taught it ourselves. It is certainly one of the hardest things our students accomplish, but, like so many other challenges, it is worth the effort for a college that believes that its graduates can and should change the world.

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