Interdisciplinary learning, also known as cross-disciplinary learning, is an educational approach that integrates concepts, methods, and content from multiple academic disciplines or fields of study. Instead of focusing on one specific subject area in isolation, interdisciplinary learning encourages the exploration of connections between different disciplines to foster a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of a particular topic or issue.
What is Interdisciplinary Learning?
Interdisciplinary learning can be found in elementary and secondary classrooms as it is valued for its ability to prepare students for complex, multifaceted challenges in the real world, where solutions often require a synthesis of knowledge from different areas Instead of focusing on one specific subject area in isolation, interdisciplinary learning encourages teachers to explore connections between different disciplines to foster a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of a particular topic or issue.
Key features of interdisciplinary learning include:
- Integration of Disciplines: It involves combining knowledge and approaches from two or more disciplines to address complex problems or explore complex topics. For example, a study on climate change might involve elements of meteorology, biology, economics, and policy analysis.
- Broad Perspective: It provides a broader perspective by allowing students to see the connections between different fields of knowledge. This can lead to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the subject matter.
- Application of Knowledge: Interdisciplinary learning emphasizes the application of knowledge in practical contexts. This can involve conducting research, engaging in hands-on projects, or participating in collaborative activities.
- Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills: It encourages the development of critical thinking skills, as students need to evaluate information from various disciplines and synthesize it to form meaningful conclusions.
When teachers implement interdisciplinary learning and combine subjects in a meaningful way, it lays a strong foundation for students to think critically about the world around them and to think outside the boundaries of traditional subjects. It prepares students to approach complex challenges with a flexible and open-minded mindset, which is invaluable in today’s rapidly changing world. The activities below are just some suggestions for how teachers can weave interdisciplinary learning and other subjects into their social studies curriculum.
Historical Scientists Biography Project
Objective: To introduce students to influential historical scientific figures, learn about their contributions, and understand the broader historical context of their work.
- List of selected historical scientific figures (e.g., Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, Alexander Fleming, etc.)
- Research materials (books, articles, online resources)
- Presentation tools (e.g., PowerPoint, Google Slides, posters)
This activity not only introduces students to important historical figures in science but also helps them understand the broader historical and cultural contexts in which scientific discoveries were made. It encourages research skills, presentation abilities, and critical thinking about the role of science in shaping human history.
First, teachers should choose a list of notable historical scientific figures that have had a significant impact on their respective fields. Ensure that the selected figures span a range of scientific disciplines and time periods from physics, chemistry, medication research, philosophy, and psychology. Teachers can have list of scientists prepared or encourage students to research an individual based on their own interests. Depending on which route you choose, assign each student or group of students one of the selected historical figures. Provide them with resources for research, including books, articles, and reputable websites.
Instruct students to gather information on the following aspects of their assigned scientist:
- Biographical information (birth, education, major life events)
- Area of scientific focus or discovery
- Key contributions to science
- Historical context (time period, societal influences, scientific advancements of the era)
Encourage students to organize their research findings into a presentation format. Students can use slides, posters, diagrams, or other visual aids to enhance their presentations. During their presentations, students should cover the key points they researched, providing a well-rounded overview of the scientist’s life and contributions. After each presentation, facilitate a discussion with the class. Encourage questions and comments about the scientist’s work and the historical context in which they lived. Prompt students to reflect on how the contributions of their assigned scientist have influenced modern science or everyday life. Discuss how their work has laid the foundation for contemporary scientific knowledge.
Geographical Urban Planning
Objective: To understand the principles of urban planning, consider the needs and preferences of a community, and explore the social and cultural aspects of urban development.
- Large sheets of paper or poster boards
- Markers, colored pencils, or crayons
- Glue, scissors, and magazines or printouts for visuals (optional)
- Information resources on urban planning and community development
An interdisciplinary activity that engages students in the principles of urban planning can also encourages them to think critically about the social and cultural aspects of community development. This activity is intended to promote teamwork, creativity, and problem-solving skills while fostering an understanding of how urban planning can shape the quality of life in a community. This interdisciplinary activity can be used in a middle or high school setting. For elementary students, consider using the activities about community planning provided in our Nystrom Young Citizens program!
First, teachers can start with a brief discussion or presentation about the concept of urban planning in cities, suburban towns, and rural communities. Explain the importance in creating functional, sustainable, and livable communities and be sure to explore the unique setting that your own school is in! Teachers should provide resources to students, such as books, atlases, articles, or other online materials, about urban planning principles and practices as a point of reference. Be sure to include examples of well-designed, functional neighborhoods and cities.
Next comes the project! Teachers will identify a specific area within a city or town (real or hypothetical) that the students will work on. This could be a vacant lot, an underutilized space, or a redevelopment opportunity. You could even find historical plots from the Library of Congress before cities or suburbs were made and use these historical documents to inspire students. Divide students into small groups or pairs. Each group will be responsible for designing a section of the chosen area. They should consider factors like:
- Housing types (apartments, single-family homes, etc.)
- Public spaces (parks, plazas, community centers)
- Transportation options (roads, sidewalks, public transit)
- Commercial and retail areas
- Cultural and recreational facilities
Using the large sheets of paper or poster boards, each group should create a visual representation of their proposed neighborhood. They can draw or use cut-out images from magazines or printouts to represent different elements. Each group should present their design to the rest of the participants. They should explain their choices and how they address the needs and preferences of the community. After each presentation, facilitate a discussion about the various design choices. Encourage participants to consider the social, cultural, and economic implications of their proposals. Discuss common themes and differences between the designs. Explore how different perspectives contribute to a well-rounded community plan.
Understanding Ecosystems Project
Objective: To understand the interdependence of living organisms and their environment, while also exploring the geographical and cultural aspects of a specific region.
- Maps or globes
- Drawing or coloring supplies
- Information resources (atlases, websites, etc.) about a specific ecosystem or region
- Notebooks or paper for recording observations
This activity about understanding ecosystems is a great interdisciplinary activity that not only integrates science and social studies, but also encourages hands-on learning, critical thinking, and creativity. It provides a well-rounded understanding of the chosen ecosystem and the human interactions within it. You only need a few materials that are likely already in your classroom to get started and can take as many or little class periods required to complete the full activity!
First, start by overviewing what ecosystems are and the various regions throughout the world. Nystrom World is a great resource to introduce students to maps and geographical features around the world. Have students select a specific ecosystem or region that interests them. This could be in small groups or individually. Students could choose a rainforest, desert, coral reef, grassland, or any other natural environment that is local or from a distant geographic region.
Next comes the research aspect of the project! Students will need to use atlases or specific websites to gather information about the chosen ecosystem or region. Focus on having students research the regional geography, climate, flora and fauna, and any unique features or characteristics, and the indigenous cultures, communities, or societies that historically or currently inhabit this area. This is where your maps and globes come in to help students identify specific geographical features, neighboring regions, and its position relative to the rest of the world.
Using art supplies and materials like clay, paper, and paint, students will also create a diorama of the chosen ecosystem. Be sure to encourage students to include drawings of plants, animals, and specific geographical features that make the region or ecosystem unique. Making a creative representation helps reinforce understanding of the ecosystem’s geographic and scientific components.
Finally, each student individually or in their small-group can share their diorama and ecosystem findings with the group in a presentation. This encourages communication skills and reinforces the learning. When each presentation has concluded, have a whole-class discussion about the connections between the science of the ecosystem and the social aspects of the region. Consider questions like:
- How do the geographical features impact the ecosystem and the communities living there?
- How have the local cultures historically interacted with the environment?
Enhance student learning with digital geography activities
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Monet Hendricks is the blog editor and social media/meme connoisseur for Social Studies School Service. Passionate about the field of education, she earned her BA from the University of Southern California before deciding to go back to get her Master’s degree in Educational Psychology. She attended the graduate program at Azusa Pacific University pursuing her post-grad Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology and Applied Behavior Analysis and currently works as a School Psychologist in Los Angeles, CA. Her favorite activities include traveling, watching documentaries on mental health, and cooking adventurous vegetarian recipes with her husband.