Interdisciplinary collaborative course for science students
Our students from the Science Faculty study biology, chemistry, geography, geology, physics and mathematics. The course was originally aimed at Masters students with a B2 level of English. In reality, the groups turned out to contain a mixture of bachelors, masters and even some doctoral students. This heterogeneity brought with it a wide range of language levels, from B1 to C1. This did not hamper the collaboration, rather it encouraged mutual sharing and interactivity.
The aim of the course was to bring together students of different scientific disciplines with field specific tutors and ESP language teachers to deal with an authentic scientific problem and to address it exploiting the contributions that each field could make. English was used as a communication tool.
Our course is in fact a hybrid. It shares elements of three teaching approaches: collaborative learning, problem-based learning and CLIL. Part of our own professional development was to ask if combining these three pedagogical approaches is at all possible. We have found that it is, but not without confronting an array of problems.
Course objectives – collaborative approach
Our course resembles a bonsai. This is the shape we clipped our course into. We have tailored it to the needs of science graduates.
Upon completing the course, students be better able to:
- cooperate and communicate in intra and interdisciplinary scientific teams (discuss, gather information, assign responsibilities in a team, meet deadlines)
- communicate in an interdisciplinary way and understand interdisciplinary relations in science
- think critically
- explore an authentic problem of a region
- use English as a communication tool
- write scientific abstracts with the help of language corpora, accessed through Sketch Engine
- present their results using advanced presentation skills
- present to scientists from other fields in a relevant way
- present at conferences
- organize a student conference (assign roles and responsibilities, meet deadlines, set up a program, compile a book of abstracts)
Process of preparation and organization of the course
Assembling the team
To organize a multidisciplinary course, it is necessary to set up a team consisting of ESP language teachers and specialists from different disciplines who will collaborate to achieve the above objectives.
To have the course clearly structured and learning materials organized, it is convenient to make use of a suitable learning management system (LMS), such as Moodle. In our course we were using a learning platform of Masaryk University information system because our students are accustomed to their own system. We used external tools as necessary, e.g. Google docs for online interactive sharing where students signed up for topics, as well as roles and responsibilities.
For the sake of unity and coherence, it is beneficial to identify an authentic problem that the students and teachers can work on throughout the semester. The team spent a great deal of time brainstorming, and in the end we chose the eutrophication of a local reservoir which is a source of power, water and recreation. This issue allowed the scientists to apply their methodological approaches and knowledge.
To create a shared understanding of a concept, students were encouraged to find relations between items with the help of an affinity map.
We approached the problem, Cyanobacteria in the Brno reservoir, from the perspectives of six scientific disciplines – biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geology, geography.
Required of students
- weekly attendance at 100 minute modules throughout the 13 week semester
- 2–3 hours of work outside the class per week
- homework involved completing quizzes and exercises before and after sessions, and reading
- active participation in the final conference, which includes writing an abstract for the presentation
- consultations with science and language teachers on the topics of presentations and on the form of presentation – at least two consultations per course.
- blog - self-assessment and peer assessment, at least four entries per course
- deadlines - to be strictly adhered to – work should be submitted by Tuesday 5 p.m. of the week following the session
- general English for informal communication
- English for academic purposes - functional language (comparing/contrasting, cause/effect, describing a process, interpreting data, defining)
- English for specific purposes – discipline-specific language
Students became familiar with some essential aspects of conference organization. They learnt what to do, what to say, how to assign roles and responsibilities, meet deadlines, prepare a program, compile a book of abstracts. While they might apply this to organizing their own conference in the future, they experienced a microcosm of what is involved, an experience most novice presenters are oblivious to.