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Establishing and Maintaining Transdisciplinary Courses

Adam J. Kuban

Assistant Professor - Department of Journalism - Ball State University

I have identified my scholarly trajectory as one that is situated in project-based journalism pedagogy. I believe that, in our integrated marketplace and global economy, students must have opportunities to apply their skills and knowledge pertinent to their major in another discipline, creating a depth of knowledge that helps them see connections between their primary field and that of another.

Project-based learning is a powerful tool for deepening student knowledge while also building skills in critical thinking, collaboration, and communication (see Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Rosenfeld & Ben-Hur, 2001; Tseng et al., 2013; Wolk, 1994). To make project-based learning even more powerful, I have recently developed and offered a number of courses where project-based learning is anchored in a concrete, real-life context. These courses have required transdisciplinary collaboration, where students from diverse academic majors utilize the knowledge and skills associated with their respective fields and apply them in a novel setting toward a common goal (see Satterfield et al., 2009; Wagner, Baum & Newbill, 2014). This type of collaboration has existed for over 20 years among certain disciplines such as health and social sciences (see Rosenfield, 1992); however, technological advances and industry demand present educators with new opportunities and challenges (see Versick & Troger, 2014).

Police + The Press is a project-based, transdisciplinary course that represents one example of this strategy (I have also worked with faculty in geological sciences to achieve the same objective). I team-teach Police + The Press at Ball State University with two police officers. I’ll first provide a brief description of the course and then describe the challenges and opportunities of transdisciplinary collaborations.

Police + The Press

We typically enroll undergraduates who seek majors in journalism, telecommunications, and/or criminal justice. This semester-long course offers students exposure to the police department to correct misconceptions and to sensitize students to the complexities of local law enforcement. Media students also act as teachers, educating officers about practices and pressures associated with the press.

The course capstone project results in students contributing to an interactive, multimedia tablet App that can bolster understanding among police, press, and the public. Students produce multimedia features to chronicle this relationship. They also integrate Storify blogs that cultivate their research and social media content about timely topics connected to the course. Criminal justice students create, distribute, and analyze the results of a civilian-satisfaction survey that becomes part of the University Police Department’s accreditation materials. Graphics depicting survey results appear in the App.

Making Transdisciplinary Collaboration Work

Transdisciplinary collaboration poses certain challenges. To that end, I offer a non-discipline-specific conceptual framework outlining the (1) workplace conditions, (2) qualities/attitudes, and (3) common goals that have enhanced the collaborative, transdisciplinary experience presented in Police + The Press, which could serve as a model for any transdisciplinary partnership.

In my experience, successful collaboration results from a three-faceted framework, two elements of which can be controlled: (a) favorable attitudes and personality qualities toward transdisciplinary engagement and (b) common goals determined between the involved parties. The third element—workplace conditions—is largely out of the collaborators’ control but still impacts the partnership (see Figure 1). When all three facets overlap, I believe successful collaboration can occur. In the event that one facet is absent or lacking, collaboration can still function but may be difficult to sustain. Table 1 and the ensuing text further qualify each facet of this conceptual framework.

Figure 1. A conceptual framework for successful transdisciplinary collaboration (© Kuban & Mulligan, 2014).

Workplace Conditions. When we first decided to create this course, the police officers and I established a standing meeting to discuss curricular objectives, assignments, and evaluation metrics. We met every other week at the University Police Station for nine months prior to the debut of the course in order to sketch the course design.

Arguably most important in this facet is administrative support. The officers with whom I team-teach and I are fortunate to have current superiors who embrace this collaboration, allowing the course to continue for its second and third iteration. Without their support, our transdisciplinary collaboration would likely end. We bolster and maintain that administrative support through results that benefit the students, the course instructors, and the University Police Station – deeper student learning, tablet App analytics, conference presentations (including those that involve students), and peer-reviewed manuscript submissions.

Although this facet largely remains out of one’s control, it represents a vital component and should be considered in the conceptual framework for successful, long-term collaboration.

Qualities/Attitudes. Any transdisciplinary situation comes with a number of inherent differences, but I have found that if there are common emotional qualities, the collaborative relationship can remain collegial and productive. In my experience, the following qualities remain essential: a cooperative and compromising attitude; respect for and equitable treatment of individual collaborator roles; trust in one another’s competence; ability to be vulnerable, open, honest, and willing to learn; and an enthusiasm for the projects pursued.

A unique side effect of our collaboration for Police + The Press is the officers’ increased understanding of my expectations as a tenure-track faculty member. They have come to realize that I always have to look for conference, grant, and/or publication opportunities. In time, they have joined me in my quest to pursue these scholarly initiatives. (We currently have a co-authored manuscript under review for The Police Chief.) They also support the creation and distribution of our tablet App. Likewise, as an educator of aspiring journalists, I have learned more about the complexities of their role in our university community, which ultimately influences my teaching — in this course but also others. Together, the officers and I have developed a shared vulnerability that allows us to maximize our individual, discipline-related strengths but also acknowledge the limitations of our respective professions. This is key. I think that too many in academia view their subject area as superior to others, and that attitude has adverse implications in transdisciplinary collaboration.

You have to be willing to accept that you do not know everything about everything.

Common Goals. Over time, the officers and I have identified our respective strengths and delegated tasks that play to our individual talents and interests but also results in achieving common goals. I have more experience in the classroom; thus, I tend to become more of a content manager for the development and deadlines associated with our project deliverables — multimedia features, survey results, Storify blogs — that comprise our tablet App. I edit and grade students’ content, and I always look for teachable moments when I can help students draw connections between the police and the press. The officers trust me to facilitate the course in this capacity. However, I am a journalism educator and not a police officer, so I trust the officers to handle much of the actual instruction related to the content of the course. This mutual trust contributes to our common goal: To have our students learn about police protocols and generate a resultant free App that informs, engages, and connects the press and the general populace with their local law enforcement.

I believe this conceptual framework can assist others as they begin to embark on transdisciplinary initiatives. This is how the framework exists now as I envision it. In time, facets and qualifiers will evolve, transforming the notion of what equates to successful transdisciplinary collaboration.


I would like to thank and acknowledge Laura MacLeod Mulligan, MLS, a colleague from Ball State University, for her contributions to this post. She and I devised the conceptual framework on display, and we maintain our own transdisciplinary collaboration pertinent to information-literacy standards.

This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference for Teaching and Learning in Austin, TX – An Experiential-learning Course and iPad App.

References & Resources

Blumenfeld, P., Soloway, E., Marx, R., Krajcik, J., Guzdial, M., Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project- based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist 26(3-4): 369-398.

Rosenfeld, S., Ben-Hur, Y. (2001). Project-based learning in science and technology: A case study of professional development. Proceedings IOSTE Symposium, Cyprus.

Rosenfield, P. (1992). The potential of transdisciplinary research for sustaining and extending linkages between the health and social sciences. Social Science & Medicine 35: 1343-1357.

Satterfield, J., Spring, B., Brownson, R., Mullen, E., Newhouse, R., Walker, B., Whitlock, E. (2009). Toward a transdisciplinary model of evidence-based practice. Milbank Quarterly 87(2): 368-390.

Tseng, K., Chang, C., Lou, S., Chen, W. (2013). Attitudes toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is a project-based learning environment. International Journal of Technology and Design Education 23(1): 87-102.

Versick, D., Troger, P. (2014). Transdisciplinary challenges of scientific computing. Journal of Integrated Design & Process Science 18(1): 1-4.

Wagner, T., Baum, L., Newbill, P. (2014). From rhetoric to real world: Fostering higher order thinking through transdisciplinary collaboration. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 51(6): 664-673.

Wolk, S. (1994). Project-based learning: Pursuits with a purpose. Educational Leadership 52(3): 42-45.

This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference – Austin.

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