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‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ These words, often attributed to Albert Einstein, might very well be the motto of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS). The Institute’s penchant for experimentation makes it the UvA’s incubator for innovative inter-disciplinary education.

There is no such thing as a failed experiment

IIS director Lucy Wenting sees it like this: ‘Not all of our educational experiments succeed, of course, but the ones that fail teach us something as well. We need this opportunity to experiment since we are, above all, an institute that wants to address social issues and respond quickly to current themes. I feel privileged to have the chance to do this as an institute.

We are given the space to innovate and experiment with new courses, new minors and other forms of interdisciplinary education.’ This builds on the vision Karel van Dam, emeritus professor of Biochemistry at the UvA, had in mind when he founded I2O (the predecessor of today’s IIS) in 1996. Van Dam was convinced that where disciplines intersect, innovation takes place. This is why he was eager to better connect the various disciplines within the faculties’ education and research, and to teach students – from the outset – to consider complex societal challenges or scientific problems from different perspectives.

Geert Bakker and Lucy Wenting
Geert Bakker and Lucy Wenting

But back to 2021. Van Dam’s dream has been a reality for years. Today, interdisciplinary DNA runs through the institute’s veins, as evidenced by the two broad Bachelor’s programmes offered: Future Planet Studies and Natural and Social Sciences.

Students can also follow two Master’s programmes – Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Forensic Science – and there are many different elective courses and honours programmes on offer for the entire UvA community. The institute also boasts an education lab where interdisciplinary innovation projects are devised and implemented together with faculties.

Complex social problems

The IIS connects the various facets of its teaching activities through an interdisciplinary approach and a consistent outward gaze. And that attracts enthusiastic students who feel engaged with society, like Geert Bakker, a second-year student in the IIS Bachelor Future Planet Studies.

‘Many students - myself included - recognise the importance of considering and reflecting on complex social problems during our time at university. Thanks to our interdisciplinary degree programme, we are aware of the tendency to view problems from a one-dimensional perspective. Take climate change, for example. This is more than just a problem of excess CO2. In order to take control of climate change, and to really understand it, you have to realise that it’s not only a technical problem, but a social one as well.’

Wenting notes: ‘This complexity of problems is why IIS exists. Now, I’m not saying that every degree programme should be interdisciplinary. But I would like every student to be familiar with these complex issues. I think it’s important that students be given the opportunity to make a foray into other disciplines. That way we can train young professionals who are actively engaged with the world around them and are able to help think constructively about possible solutions.’

Social transitions

In the coming years, IIS will focus not only on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary education, but on social transitions as well. To that end, the institute is working to realise even stronger connections between external stakeholders – such as municipalities, NGOs and consulting firms – and the Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes, minors and other study programmes it offers. Co-creation will play a central role in those efforts.

Wenting elaborates: ‘If we want to advance our society, I am convinced we will need knowledge about social transitions and how to achieve them through education and research. Take the internet, for example. It has developed incredibly quickly. But might that development have been too fast? Shouldn’t we pause for a moment and, as a society, start anew and redesign it according to the values we hold dear?’

Creativity

Making that change will require creative thought. Robbert Dijkgraaf, former professor at the Faculty of Science and the current director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton (USA), once said, ‘Creative scientists should be allowed their freedom.’

The IIS offers lecturers and academics from all UvA faculties that freedom to experiment with education. This is how the successful Bachelor’s programme in Future Planet Studies was launched. The IIS also provides annual grants to lecturers for the development of new teaching methods and curricular content.

And students are naturally involved as well. For a few years now, the Create a Course Challenge has offered students the opportunity to submit ideas for new interdisciplinary courses. The best proposals are actually developed into elective courses by a number of education experts, working together with the students. In 2020, the Challenge yielded 178 ideas. The five ideas that made it to the final round addressed topics such as digital warfare, crisis communication and queer culture in Amsterdam.

New Bachelor’s programme

The IIS continues to innovate. The institute is currently collaborating with the Faculty of Science to structure the Makerspace for the new Science & Design Bachelor’s programme. In this programme, students from various disciplines will work together to design and develop materials. Social Data Science, another new interdisciplinary Bachelor’s programme, is in the final stages of accreditation.

This programme was set up by lecturers and researchers from the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Humanities. Right from the start, students will take part in digital innovation projects concerning topics such as sustainability, health, mobility and social equality.

‘While the subject matter is obviously very interesting and topical, it’s not necessarily easy. The great thing is that these lecturers, who work at different places at the UvA, become acquainted through their teaching activities. This is our way of using knowledge sharing to build a close- knit community,’ concludes Wenting.

Inspired lecturers

And it is precisely these lecturers who are the indispensable foundation of the IIS. Because, as Bakker emphasises, good education relies on competent, enthusiastic lecturers. ‘I have noticed – and continue to see – that these lecturers make a difference for many students. Which is vital, particularly in these times of online education. You can learn a lot from passionate lecturers who are experts in their field. That’s why I enrolled at university in the first place. I want a glimpse into their knowledge because it offers me a basis for further exploring a given subject on my own,’ Bakker concludes.

Lucy Wenting has been director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies since 2010. She studied Philosophy and Political Science at the UvA and is specialised in leadership, strategy and curriculum development. Geert Bakker is a second-year student of Future Planet Studies.

Annual review Faculty of Science 2020

This interview was also published in the annual review of the University of Amsterdam Faculty of Science. Read our annual review for news and background on teaching and research at the Faculty of Science in 2020, including interviews with lecturers, researchers and students, facts and figures on enrolment and staff news about organisation developments and our valorisation activities.