Complexity as an anchor for the development of interdisciplinary reasoning in the sciences

Principal Investigator (PI): A/P Nathalie Goodkin, Asian School of the Environment
Co-PI: Kevin Hartman, Research Scientist, Centre for Research and Development in Learning
Research Associates: Aloysius Ong, Jaime Koh, CRADLE@NTU
Funding Agency: CRADLE Start-up Grant
Breakthroughs in science and engineering are increasingly accomplished by interdisciplinary teams. These teams are often formed by researchers coming from very different angles to answer the same question. While this is not surprising given the complex nature of scientific and engineering problems, interdisciplinary research among experts is not simple. If this is the case, then imagine preparing undergraduate students to engage in such activities. How do universities get students to think productively about complex challenges like global healthcare, population changes, technology use, and environmental sustainability that require knowledge from many fields, when the students are still learning the foundations of their chosen field?
The Centre for Research and Development in Learning (CRADLE@NTU) initiated an effort to impact students’ development of interdisciplinary reasoning and communication skills (IRC). In a project spearheaded by A/P Nathalie Goodkin of the Asian School of the Environment (ASE), the team is trialling ways to better prepare science students for steering interdisciplinary work that impacts Singapore’s sustainability practices and preparations.
This development is done by incorporating principles of complexity science which posits that complex behaviour emerges from the interaction of systems following simple rules. By identifying and being able to communicate the simple rules, researchers are able to make progress on tackling inter-related and complex problems. However, in the pursuit of those simple rules, interdisciplinary teams must be comfortable with initial ambiguity, uncertainty, and poorly constrained problem spaces. However, by working together from different angles, teams can make progress in clarifying the unknowns and generating productive solutions.