Abstract

Interdisciplinary initiatives have been encouraged in higher education curricula, especially in mechanical engineering as a result of the industry’s calls for talent with multidisciplinary competencies to solve complex real-world problems. However, disciplinary distance, due to disciplinary differences, poses great challenges in interdisciplinary teaching and learning. How can interdisciplinary faculty members collaborate effectively in teaching? How can students with different backgrounds learn significant knowledge? Collaboration for interdisciplinary education across disciplines is challenging, as co-teachers are usually affiliated with different departments or even schools, and they tend to speak different disciplinary languages and value different disciplinary cultures. Similarly, students in engineering design teams come from different backgrounds. Consistent with Klein’s concepts of Wide Interdisciplinarity and Narrow Interdisciplinarity, we propose the concept of disciplinary distance to present the research findings of disciplinary differences and their implications on interdisciplinary teaching and learning. This paper presents a qualitative analysis of disciplinary distance, as manifested in interdisciplinary education from faculty members’ perspectives. From 13 semi-structured interviews, we find that disciplinary distance plays a vital role in interdisciplinary teaching and learning. It influences teamwork — both in co-teacher teams and student teams. Interdisciplinary course content and interdisciplinary co-teacher teams can also create a wide disciplinary distance that serves as a barrier for interdisciplinary learning. We further find that interdisciplinary collaboration may help to mediate the negative impact of disciplinary distance.

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