It’s as important as specialising, argues Alice Bell.
Our education system is one of the most specialised in the world. There is a lot to be said for this. It’s one of the reasons so many people spend so much money to travel from all over the world to study here. Specialism is a good thing in itself. It lets us – quite simply – specialise; learn more about the tiny details of the world and further deepen the sum of human knowledge.
But there are problems too. This is often understood in terms of lack of understanding between disciplines or subject groups (for example, ‘two cultures’) but it’s a loss of a chance to consider complex subjects as a whole too. As cracks in the system become ever more obvious, universities are increasingly looking for ways to reconnect educational programmes, and reconnect their students with each other and the wider world with them.
Set of problems
Imperial College is experimenting with such a course , which I helped pilot and set up last year as part of its Horizons programme. Prompted partly from feedback from graduate employers, the course wanted to find ways of helping students to develop problem-solving skills and put their science in context. We also wanted to give them more opportunities to think about how they could communicate work to non-specialists, and put disparate – often incomplete – knowledge together.
It was an exercise in offering a science education as a set of problems and complex, mixed bits of knowledge, not the sets of ready-made answers to learn.
Climate change seemed like the obvious starting point, though we soon started to consider the various security issues of food, water and energy too, as well as global health and ageing populations.
‘Science doesn’t have a politics’
It’s easy to see ‘in context’ work as secondary to the apparently more important and authentic experience of a traditionally organised curriculum. Some also seemed to find it a bit of a threat. Even supporters in the college would dub it ‘soft-skills’, and yet in many respects it was a lot harder. Or simply a different type of challenge.
Most worrying to me were those who maintained we couldn’t possibly talk about politics, only learn about how policy might better listen to science, because apparently ‘science doesn’t have a politics’. Such a blinkered view seemed simply unscientific, and made me deeply concerned about the consequence of spending too much time down your own disciplinary silos.
Students at all levels should have a chance to spend time learning about issues as they come to us in real life; a mass of interconnected questions and partial knowledges, not neatly divided and settled topics for study.
The course was available to first-year (and now second-year) undergraduates across medicine, engineering and the sciences and – inspired by a course  at the LSE – taught in part by PhD students and postdocs. The tutors learned alongside students, so young academics were offered the same challenges as undergraduates, but at higher level and with added chance to develop leadership and teaching skills. This inter-disciplinary and inter-generational model also helped build relationships across the college, taking undergrad teaching not just as an end in itself but a space where the university could work together.
Specialism is a good thing. But we should think cleverly about what we want people to be specialists in, in the 21st century, and how we want to prepare students (at all levels) for a life that will probably increasingly be about connecting knowledge as well as deepening our understanding.