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Breaking boundaries – the power of multidisciplinarity

We tend to link certain skills and knowledge to certain disciplines: engineers know how to do this, doctors know about that, social scientists can do something else. Categories and groupings are useful tools and help us understand and analyse the world around us. However, sometimes, these same conceptual tools can narrow our vision and hinder our capability to solve complex problems and see the strengths of each individual. Why, and how, should we bring together students from different disciplines to solve clients’ – or even global – problems?
Portrait of Piritta Jokelainen
Piritta Jokelainen, a senior advocacy specialist at Yhteiskunta-alan korkeakoulutetut (Social Science professionals) / photo: Hessu Heikurinen

Complex problems require multidisciplinary solutions

The world is wild, difficult to forecast, and not arranged according to the precise boundaries of our academic disciplines. Take, for example, our most pressing problem, global warming. To fight it, we need an understanding of the climate, built and natural environments, social and political processes, energy production, food industry, materials, and economy, to name a few.

Any megatrend-size problem is multifaceted, and no discipline is going to solve any of them alone. That is why we need cooperation and bridging gaps between professions and areas of expertise. The same goes for smaller challenges in daily working lives. Bringing students from different disciplines together to solve real-life problems helps them get a much fuller picture of the surrounding world – and solve the complex challenges no matter the size.

Learning to utilize all strengths in a team

Real-life teams are often multidisciplinary. Learning to utilize different strengths of different people is a valuable teamworking skill. That’s why it is good to give students a head start to interdisciplinary cooperation during their studies. Understanding and appreciating other people’s viewpoints help students broaden their thinking and produce more creative solutions.

Figuring out strengths by working together

When students are surrounded by people studying the same things, it is sometimes hard for them to see what they can bring to a team that is unique and not to be taken for granted. Sometimes this leads to an identity struggle and difficulties translating their education to marketable skills for potential employers.

Crossing paths and working on real problems with students of other disciplines can help students figure out what kind of competence and viewpoints are unique to their academic background. Seeing what others bring to the table, it is easier for students to see their role and strengths as a team member. Multidisciplinary cooperation, combined with the reflection of each team member’s roles and strengths, can help students a long way to discovering their professional identity and confidence.

Ahead: a career full of learning

The world in which today’s students will work will inevitably change radically during their careers. No matter what they chose to study originally, this education will unlikely carry them to the end of their careers. Societies, businesses, and jobs change. So, everyone is required to change too and steer their skills in a way more suited to the changing environment.

That could mean small tweaks or bigger career shifts, but none the less stepping outside the comfort zone and gaining new skills and knowledge from other disciplines as well. So to help students flex their multidisciplinary muscles early on, we need to create situations for them to work, collaborate, discuss, compare and reflect with students of other disciplines – and to break boundaries together.

Author:

Piritta Jokelainen

Piritta Jokelainen is a senior advocacy specialist at Yhteiskunta-alan korkeakoulutetut (Social Science professionals). She is focused on education policy and wants to promote the joy of cooperation and lifelong learning in the field of higher education.

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