Parallel Projects: High-impact, low-risk interdisciplinary learning

Interdisciplinary effectiveness, defined as “the integration and synthesis of multiple viewpoints and practices, working effectively across disciplinary boundaries” is one of the nine Graduate Qualities that we aim to help our students to develop at the University of Sydney. However, offering programs that fully realise this goal can be complex, and resource intensive. Opportunities do exist across the University in the form of the Industry and Community Projects, but the Business School’s Work-Integrated Learning Hub has been looking for several years to increase availability and opportunity of interdisciplinary learning environments for our students early in their degree programs. In this post, I detail the Parallel Projects model which was piloted this year.

Context

In 2020, the Business School’s Work-Integrated Learning Hub launched a revitalised set of project-based consulting units known as Practicums. The new models employed Laurillard’s (2013) Teaching as Collaboration framework that emphasises an iterative process of ideation, peer review, collaboration, and re-ideation. We wanted both undergraduate and postgraduate students to be able to have the experience working on a live challenge, with a real industry partner, within their first year of study. Since they launched, thee units have since become incredibly popular and boast growing enrolments and high student satisfaction.

However, one challenge that we have increasingly run into is strong student appetite for technical conversations and expert understanding of material outside of the business field. As I was working on solving this problem in 2021, I was introduced to a few colleagues in the School of Medical Sciences and the School of Veterinary Science who had the opposite problem. These colleagues were teaching similar units in the Faculty of Science where students had to design a product to solve problem in their respective fields and were looking for more opportunities for students to conceptualise and understand the business aspects of what they were doing.

So, we set out to figure out a way where we could collaborate and (in theory) solve both of our problems with a single approach. We aimed to offer high impact opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary learning to better appreciate the interwoven nature of business and science. However, it was important to us that this collaboration would work with existing units of study and did not burden the students with additional work or expose them to our own failures were we not able to manage correctly.

Solution: The Parallel Projects Model

The solution we ultimately generated was, on paper, a simple one:

  • No creation of new units or programs. Each school offers and runs their own units under separate codes, to their own students in their own programs, with their own assessment schedules.
  • However, all involved units of study share a client and an an industry project. The project is one negotiated by the coordinators of each unit and requires problems to be solved by each respective cohort.
  • Within each unit of study, students are allocated into project groups. However each group in each unit, will have a sister group in the other unit. Students are connected with their sister groups so that they can ask technical questions and draw from each other’s disciplinary background but are not required to do so.
  • Finally, we timetable a series of events over the course of the semester (beginning, middle, and end) where students from all three units are in the same room at the same time and hear from the client, and work with each other.

Thus the idea was to run the projects together but not as one which led us to the ‘Parallel Projects’ moniker. In Semester 2 of 2022, we trialed this model in collaboration with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries looking at management of Japanese Encephalitis (JEV). The students shared a single client and brief but each unit had a different element of the brief to focus on:

  • BUSS1321: Understanding the business of mosquito management, including cost-benefit analysis of prevention measures, and producing sustainable management solutions for DPI and/or specific piggeries.
  • AVBS3888: Decreasing the spread of the disease, understanding the viral load in the environment, likely with a specific focus on mosquito vectors.
  • IMPA3888: Understanding the human health side of things, including protection of industry workers and scientists.

While we we are still waiting for empirical student feedback data to come in, we have already gathered a few key pieces of anecdotal data and learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Pilot program lessons learned

It’s really energising

As a teacher I have found working on this model and project this semester to be invigorating. It created a number of spaces where I got to work with colleagues and came to understand their approaches, communicate my own, and negotiate spaces of overlap. There were certainly some challenging elements of this such as resolving differing pedagogical stances on things like task ambiguity, however even these conversations served as a space where we shared practice and collaborated in order to drive student outcomes.

Students are capable of more than we think they are

I was a bit worried about how the technical side of things would land with students. In the context of shared briefing sessions, I was aware that at any given time one of the cohorts (Vet, Medicine, and Business) might have a difficult time staying across any specific area of content. However, what we found instead was that students really endeavored to wrap their heads around it. Indeed, I saw my own students from the Business School digging into Science journals and working together to understand the likes of biology or agricultural science papers to better their business projects. I was impressed to see the initiative they took to understand the technical sides of things as they worked through the project.

The devil is in the details

While its easy to get the ball rolling on a Parallel Project, the difficulty only increases with time. There were several instances where we ran into problems with things that we largely took for granted in our own classes. For example, many of us are at this point comfortable with the level of challenge offered by running a hybrid session for our students. However, running a hybrid session for students in three different cohorts whilst dialing in industry partners for a Q&A produced a number of technical issues that we initially had underestimated. We also had made assumptions about how students would use resources and engage with each other via the sister groups which didn’t pan out. In short, take care with assumptions.

Compartmentalisation is great risk mitigation

This model ensures that each unit is running indepdendetly for all intents and purposes. It meant in theory that if we had a disaster, or if the model wasn’t working for a single cohort – then that class could in effect decouple and proceed as normal. Thankfully, we didn’t have any such issues this semester and indeed, it all seemed to run smoothly. However I do think that having that ‘eject button’ for safety provided a certain degree of comfort for all three involved teachers as we knew we could pull out at any point if things weren’t working.

Final thoughts

The Parallel Projects model is a valuable tool. For teachers and students alike it represents an avenue for high-impact and low-risk interdisciplinary project-based work. At the most basic level, deployment of the model simply requires two teachers who are keen to collaborate and an industry partner. One notable benefit of this model is that it does not necessitate the creation of, or even revision to, existing units of study. In saying this, it should be noted that it does demand devotion from the teachers involved as its up to them to figure out everything from pedagogical differences, to timetabling requirements, to technological infrastructure. However, the Parallel Projects model offers an accessible and flexible vehicle for interdisciplinary experiential learning that is well worth considering for your next delivery.


Feature image: Photo by Jake Weirick.

About the author

Dr Steven Hitchcock is a Lecturer in Work-Integrated Learning at the University of Sydney Business School. Steven works across the design, development, and delivery of experiential programs in the Business School such as placements, practicums, and study tours.

Published by Steven Hitchcock

Dr Steven Hitchcock is a Lecturer in Work-Integrated Learning at the University of Sydney Business School. Steven works across the design, development, and delivery of experiential programs in the Business School such as placements, practicums, and study tours.

One thought on “Parallel Projects: High-impact, low-risk interdisciplinary learning

  1. Tom Worthington – Canberra – An educational technology consultant, Certified Professional member of the Australian Computer Society, and part time university lecturer.
    Tom Worthington says:

    Your Parallel Projects Model sounds like you are trying to avoid having to deal with interdisciplinary projects. I suggest for the students to get the full benifit you need to mix them from different disciplines in the one team. Only then will they learn the messy business of working with someone who speaks a different tecial language, and thinks about projects differently. Of course that requires teaching staff with the skills and experience to guide students through the inevitable problems. In 2018 I told a Senate Committee about this.

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