Article in Science / Applied Science / Industrial Technology
A Systematic Framework for Interdisciplinary Education
 
 
 

Motivation

Maturity from the industrial revolution into an information age requires our citizenry to be knowledgeable in a broad array of technologies so that they may seek high-quality employment, utilize products that enhance quality-of-life, and make informed political decisions concerning the direction of our society. The Commonwealth of Virginia Commission on the University of the 21st Century put forth a report titled “The Case for Change”(1), in which, it describes the need for interdisciplinary undergraduate programs to combat the so-called “tyranny of the disciplines” in American Education.(2) This is not a new observation. In the middle of the 20th century, Professor Colin Cherry of the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, remarked similarly:

Leibniz, it has sometimes been said, was the last man to know everything. Though this is most certainly a gross exaggeration, it is an epigram with considerable point. For it is true that up to the last years of the eighteenth century our greatest mentors were able not only to compass the whole science of their day, perhaps together with mastery of several languages, but to absorb a broad culture as well. But as the fruits of scientific labor have increasingly been applied to our material betterment, fields of specialized interest have come to be cultivated, and the activities of an ever-increasing body of scientific workers have diverged. Today we are most of us content to carry out an intense cultivation of our own little scientific gardens (to continue the metaphor), deriving occasional pleasure from a chat with our neighbors over the fence, while with them we discuss, criticize, and exhibit our produce.(3)

More recently, local businesses and organizations have expressed to us concern over the preparation of liberally-educated college graduates in fundamental science, technology and innovation development along with a scarcity of experience in collaborative problem solving and project management. Several employers have developed their own education and training programs for recent graduates that are administered to probationary new hires over as many as twenty-four months. Wishing to concentrate on their core businesses and not the delivery of education, employers have requested a fundamental understanding of science, technology and business practices be imparted at the undergraduate college level. Our solution to this demonstrated need is the development of a new, four-year undergraduate program housed in our School of Arts and Sciences that leads to a Bachelor of Science degree in Integrated Science, Business and Technology (ISBT) with the goal of integrating subject material from the various traditional disciplines of physics, chemistry, computer science, biology, engineering and business administration.

Organizational Challenge

Rather than convert an existing disciplinary department into the ISBT major, a new program was initiated, including the hiring of faculty out of industry. Our approach emulates and extends the successful Bachelor of Science degree program in Integrated Science and Technology (ISAT) at James Madison University(4) developed in direct response to the report of the Commonwealth Commission.(1) Our initial academic challenge was one of integrating the multitude of varying concepts into an interdisciplinary major and delivering the material in eight semesters without inundating the students with a litany of unrelated technological jargon. Our solution abstracts the common features of the traditional disciplines into the framework of systems science. We have found the work of Kenneth E. Boulding(5) on General System Theory (GST) to be very appropriate for our needs. In his landmark paper, Boulding uses GST to distill the varied disciplines into a unified relationship based on increasing complexity. In light of the dramatic advancement of information technology over the succeeding fifty years, we have made minor modifications to Boulding’s work and offer the following updated version.

Updated General System Theory

At its foundation, GST consists of three levels:

(1) Frameworks –Fundamental Laws of the Universe, typically studied by the discipline of Physics and concerning concepts of Energy

(2) Clockworks –Structure and Properties of Matter, typically studied by the discipline of Chemistry and concerning concepts of Materials

(3) Thermostat –Measurement and Feedback, typically studied by the discipline of Computer Science and concerning the concepts of Information

These three foundational levels can be integrated into a system – the basic building block of GST from which all higher level organizations are formed. A system consists of a core unit delineating the boundary between itself and its environment. Schematically it is often represented by the proverbial “black box” as shown in Figure 1. The box accepts input that is transformed into output through a specific process.

Figure 1. Schematic of a System.

The first three (3) levels of Energy, Material and Information comprise the flow of input and output into and out of the process contained inside the box. The environment outside the box can contribute to the system directly by providing the necessary input and accepting the output or indirectly by enhancing or constraining the process available to the system. The system can be Physical, as in an automobile or Conceptual, as in a baseball game; each having rules and procedures by which the process executes. The system can be classified also as either Human-made or Natural e.g., the Postal System or a thunderstorm. GST continues with the intermediate Natural levels of:

(4) Cell –Self-maintaining System, typically studied by the discipline of Cellular Biology and concerning the concept of an Open System

(5) Plant –Self-replicating System, typically studied by the disciplines of Botany and Genetics, concerning the concept of Genetic Codes

(6) Animal –Self-aware System, typically studied by the disciplines of Ethology and Zoology, concerning the concepts of Stimulus and Response

The systems described in this level can be classified as deterministic. Each system has a process that generates an expected output given the known inputs. As GST transitions through the Animal level the amount of system input increases dramatically, resulting in a collection of senses that provide the system an awareness of its environment. Although a specific input may not be present, increased environmental awareness affords the system the ability to predict future inputs and adjust and prepare its internal process to accept or avoid them. This emergent system property is commonly referred to as intelligence and learning.(6) Intelligent Natural systems complete the high levels of GST:

(7) Human –Self-conscious System, typically studied by the discipline of Psychology, concerning Information Processing and Human Behavior

(8) Society –Self-governing System, typically studied by the disciplines of Sociology, Political Science and Business Administration, concerning the Interaction of Individuals and Governments

(9) Existentialism - Existentially-aware System, typically studied by the disciplines of Philosophy and Theology, concerning the Existence of Higher-level Systems beyond the local Environment

A Systematic Interdisciplinary Course in Action

We have utilized this systematic framework to design, develop and deploy our curriculum. Freshmen entering our degree program are enrolled in a four-credit, laboratory-based course titled “Technology and Systems Analysis”. This course serves as an introduction to systems through the examination of a barcode scanner. The Universal Product Code or “UPC Symbol” is a technology immediately identifiable by our new students and provides a vehicle by which to tour all levels of the GST.

Definition of ISBT

The course begins with a description of General System Theory (GST) and the concept of system, including the basic components of input, output, process and environment. The ISBT program is described as a system in which fundamental scientific discoveries are converted into technological products and services though the process of business management within an environment of consumers, competitors, collaborators and regulators. (Figure 2.)

Figure 2. The Integrated Science, Business and Technology Program

presented as a System.

The students reinforce this introduction though assigned readings from the course text Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture(7) produced by the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business and targeted for graduate students in their MBA program. Our freshmen undergraduates enjoy the text and appreciate the “big picture view” it provides to their education.

Barcode at the Fundamental Levels

The flow of energy through the barcode system is introduced through an examination of basic electronics and Ohm’s Law. The concepts of pressure (voltage), resistance and flow (current) are analyzed in serial and parallel circuits in the laboratory. The components of voltage source (battery), resistor and throughput (wire) are analyzed for their roles in the larger system of the circuit. The materials utilized by these electronic components are studied through an examination of semiconductor chemistry and the creation of p-n junctions leading to diodes, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and transistors. Information and feedback are introduced through the study of integrated circuits in the form of operational amplifiers. At the conclusion of this initial module, the students construct circuitry for the barcode scanner capable of sensing when the light from an LED is open or blocked, as is the case when a barcode is swiped through the scanner. Barcode at the Intermediate Levels

While Boulding used Natural systems to define the intermediate levels of GST, our course uses directly analogous Human-made systems. The electronic components represent the level of Cell; standard circuits, the level of Plant; and electronic devices the level of Animal. Even though electronic devices are made from solid-state components, they are not static; energy and information flow through the system. While energy flow is generally directed by circuit design, the process of information flow is commonly directed by “programming” and is associated with any number of programming languages used for the creation of information-based systems. In this way, the intelligence and learning of the living “programmer” can be transferred into the electronic device. At this point the class studies the flow of information with an introduction to computer programming. With a desire to remain within our systematic framework, we have selected the LabVIEW visual programming language(8) as our development language for the curriculum. The data flow paradigm used by LabVIEW maintains the systematic view of input, output, process, and environment. It also mimics the creation of electronic circuits studied earlier in the course by treating individual processing functions as components of a circuit connected by virtual information-carrying wires (Figure 3).

Figure 3. A LabVIEW component illustrating the flow of information between input and output. Additional LabVIEW functions are used to control the barcode scanner.

The course studies the integration of energy-based electronics and information-based programming through an examination of data acquisition and analog-to-digital conversion. The students also explore the format of the UPC Symbol, the specification of alternating light and dark parallel lines of the computer-readable code, and the check character used for error detection. In the laboratory, students develop the programming necessary to acquire voltage levels corresponding to a barcode pattern from their circuitry and process the information into a human-readable number.

Barcode at the High Levels

At the highest levels of the GST, the human and business users serve as the environment and define the purpose of the barcode system.(9) Students experience their role as components of a high-level, multi-minded sociocultural system(7) by “playing” the Beer Distribution Game,(10) developed at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the mid-1960’s. The Beer Distribution Game emphasizes the difficulty of managing a supply chain with limited communication between suppliers and customers and no knowledge of the amount of product within the pipeline. This experience demonstrates the need for communication, product tracking, inventory control, point-of-sale and electronic data interchange systems. The course reviews the emergence of the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system during World War II and the function of a transponder identification tag. This flows into an examination of the barcode system of marking and the emerging Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system. The highest GST level of existentially-aware systems involves a discussion of privacy and the ethical use of product and customer tracking devices.

Course Evaluation

In addition to the homework assignments, laboratory reports and examinations used to evaluate student performance and understanding, the students are asked to critique the systems view utilized by the course during the in-class final examination. The essays received over the past eight years have been remarkably similar; three quotes selected from the freshman essays appear below.

“The systems view has been very helpful over the past semester. It allows me to break up certain machines, scanners, and even everyday things into inputs, outputs, and processes. It is a nice breakdown of components, without getting too complicated or confusing. I have discovered there are a wide variety of systems from simple energy-bonded, to multi-faceted information-bonded. If you look at the big picture, everything is a system. It is a very comprehensive view for this course. The systems view has become more in depth as the semester progressed. Everything was broken down more and it was more understandable to see the beginnings of a certain system; the nuts and bolts if you will. I would keep the curriculum the same for next semester. It is a great idea!”
“The systems view is very helpful to me, not only in this class, but I was able to apply it to my other classes too. The concept of looking at a problem by understanding its inputs, outputs, processes and reaction with its environment makes it much easier to understand. Looking at things this way also seems to keep errors at a minimum. The way that the class is constructed really helps to develop the systems view and I am happier with it than I expected to be.”
“At the beginning of the semester, I found the “systems view” to be very complex and illogical. I did not understand the concept of looking for answers “outside of the box”. In addition, I had difficulty comprehending the fact that the parts did not always have to equal the whole. However, as the semester progressed the systems view seemed to make more sense and all of the lectures and labs began to fit together. Working on mindless “machine” systems, then on to uni-minded “biological” systems, and finally multi-minded social systems brought the whole systems view together. In all honestly, the systems view has become very beneficial in my way of thinking as well as the way I interact with people. I look at objects as a system with a process rather than just objects. The systems view has definitely influenced my learning.”

The quotes above are from three of nine ISBT graduates accepted into the Johnson & Johnson Information Management Leadership Development Program(11) from our initial six graduating ISBT classes.

Additional Foundation Courses and Concentration

Armed with an understanding of the systematic framework, students embark on a three-course series that provides a detailed examination of the foundation systems levels of energy (kinematics, work, and thermodynamics), materials (metals, polymers, and ceramics) and information (transducers, measurement, and modeling). The students also study systems at the intermediate and high levels in a four-course series offered concurrently with the foundation classes. The courses “Living Systems I and II” examine the cell, plant and animal levels while the “Living Systems Technology” and “Technology and Business” courses take a detailed look at the human, society and existentially-aware systems levels. In their final two years, ISBT students select a concentration in Energy and Natural Resources (ENR), Biotechnology (BIO) or Information and Knowledge Management (IKM) – three areas loosely based on the foundational levels of energy, materials, and information – and embark on a detailed study of the tools, techniques and terminology utilized by practitioners in these technical areas.

Conclusions

We continue to add and evolve courses within our program while maintaining a tight integration into our systematic framework. We assert our program addresses the concerns presented by technology pioneer and Emeritus Germeshausen Professor Jay W. Forrester of the MIT Sloan School of Management:(12)

The weakness in education arises not so much from poor teachers as from the inappropriateness of the material that is being taught. Students are stuffed with facts but without having a frame of reference for making those facts relevant to the complexities of life. Responses to educational deficiencies are apt to result in demands for still more of what is already not working—for more science, humanities, and social studies in an already overcrowded curriculum—rather than moving toward a common foundation that pulls all fields of study into a unity that becomes mutually reinforcing and far easier to teach and to understand.

Funding and Support

The author gratefully acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation under DUE-0126565 and DUE-0310813 and the continued support of La Salle University.

Author Affiliation

William L. Weaver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrated Science, Business and Technology (ISBT) at La Salle University. The Bachelor of Science program described in this article was designed and developed by the author along with colleagues Nancy L. Jones (Professor, ISBT Chair), Marsha W. Timmerman (Asistant Professor, ISBT), La Salle faculty, industry consultants and partners.


Citations

1

Commission on the University of the 21st Century, The. 1989. The Case for Change. Commonwealth of Virginia Commission on the University of the 21st Century.

2

Aronowitz, S., and H. A. Giroux. 1991. Postmodern Education: Politics, Culture, and Social Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Pg 149.

3

Cherry, C. 1957. On Human Communication. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Pg 1.

4

Integrated Science and Technology Program in the College of Integrated Science and Technology, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, www.isat.jmu.edu.

5

Boulding, K. E. 1956. General Systems Theory – the Skeleton of a Science. Management Science 2:197–208.

6

Hawkins, J. and S. Blakeslee 2004. On Intelligence. New York: Times Books.

7

Gharajedaghi, J. 1999. Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture. Boston: Butterworth-Heinmann.

8

National Instruments. 11500 North Mopac Expressway, Austin, TX. www.ni.com.

9

Ackoff, R. L. and F. E. Emery. 1972. On Purposeful Systems. Chicago: Aldine Atherton.

10

Sterman, J. D. 1989. Modeling managerial behavior: Misperceptions of feedback in a dynamic decision making experiment. Management Science 35(3): 321-339.

11

IMLDP - Information Management Leadership Development Program, Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, www.jnj.com/careers/imldp.html.

12

Forrester, J. W. 1991. System Dynamics and the Lessons of 35 Years. The Systemic Basis of Policy Making in the 1990s, Kenyon B. De Greene, ed. Cambridge: MIT Press.

 

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About the Author 

William L Weaver
Dr. Weaver received his B.S. Degree with Majors in Chemistry and Physics from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. Degree

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