Honors College launches interdisciplinary center | The Triangle
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Honors College launches interdisciplinary center

The Pennoni Honors College will officially open its Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry, directed by Scott Knowles, director of the Great Works Symposium and associate professor of history, July 1.

The Center will oversee the Great Works Symposium, Honors travel-integrated courses and the new Custom-Designed Major program, as well as promoting interdisciplinary research for both students and faculty.

“The Honors College is the logical home for such a center. The College offers no academic subject area of its own; all its curricular offerings, including colloquia and freshman honors seminars, are interdisciplinary in one way or another. They all draw on the expertise of faculty from Drexel’s other colleges,” provost and senior vice president for academic affairs Mark Greenberg wrote in an email addressed to the Drexel community June 14.

According to Knowles, proposals for the center occurred during the 2010-11 school year, although the idea of an interdisciplinary center had been around longer than that. The Great Works Symposium, a key feature of the center, has been at Drexel since 2000, and the Custom-Designed Major program had been in development for two years.

“Drexel needs more places where interdisciplinary can flourish, and it was just our intention in the Honors College that Honors was a really good place, not the only place certainly, but one good place because we have a University-wide purview,” Knowles said.

The Custom-Designed Major program, which Knowles helped design, will be available for the first time in fall 2011, and both incoming freshmen and current Drexel students in the honors program can apply for it.

The program’s website states that each accepted student will be advised by Knowles and mentored by at least one faculty member considered to be an expert in a discipline within the student’s course of study.

“These are students coming in with their own idea of a program of studies that they built themselves, bringing together two or more disciplines of, in most cases, across colleges,” Knowles said.

Examples of proposed studies included film industry, paleontology, and global health, according to Knowles.

The maximum number of students per class in the program is 10 students.

“It’s not like psychology. We’re going to be a modest size,” Knowles said.

Additionally, the Center will direct Honors travel-integrated courses that let students learn course material on campus and then visit the area they studied. In 2010, Knowles taught a class on the history of world fairs and took 12 students to Shanghai for 11 days to visit the Shanghai World Fair class. Knowles said that in summer 2012 he will teach a course on the Olympics, where students will travel to London for a week to experience the Summer Olympics.

Other past examples of these types of classes include a trip to Bulgaria in 2009 for students studying emerging democracy and a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2009 to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“The idea is, not every student can study abroad for a whole term, but if we can develop course work that also has a travel component that might be a week or two weeks, then that can open up an avenue to students to integrate travel with education in a novel way. And so the center is also going to be really focused on developing those kinds of opportunities,” Knowles said.

Another seasoned aspect of the Honors College that will be part of the center is the Great Works Symposium. The program has a new theme every year, and it offers four courses every year related to that theme. The theme for the 2011-12 school year is health and society.

“The fall course is going to be called “Clashing Views in Health and Society,” so it’s going to be a class where we get in and really debate health care policy, bioethics … you know, little light topics like this,” Knowles said.

Additionally, the center will take suggestions from students and faculty about research and course ideas pertaining to interdisciplinary studies. Though the Great Works Symposium courses require students to complete research projects in interdisciplinary teams, the Center will also facilitate undergraduates who want to do interdisciplinary work.

“The center will be a place where faculty, from anywhere across the University and any rank, can come if they have an idea about a course they would like to do, a talk they would like to give, an event they would like to hold. We’re very open-minded, but we want to be sort of a research and development shop, if you will,” he said.

“Scott, PHC Dean Dave Jones and I want to emphasize that this new center in no way seeks to impinge on interdisciplinary activities that already exist between or among colleges, nor is it intended to impede future initiatives within or among the colleges,” Greenberg wrote.

According to Knowles, the Great Works Symposium has an office in Hagerty Library, though the actual center won’t have a physical office. There are websites for the Custom-Designed Major program and the Great Works Symposium, and a new website for the center is in development.

“We won’t have anything this summer because, you know, no one’s around. We’re starting to take on these activities and bring onto it the administrative help in July,” Knowles said.

The opening of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry will be celebrated in October at the launch event for the Great Works Symposium.