CHALLENGING DISCIPLINARY COMFORT ZONES: A STUDY ABROAD STUDIO

Presented by: Peter Greenberg

The paper presents the outcomes of a studio course taken by students in Interior Design and Industrial Design that had been structured to achieve effective collaboration and inventive solutions by asking students to work outside of their disciplinary comfort zones. In order to create parity between interdisciplinary teams on a study-abroad semester, a studio project was designed to challenge the presumed orthodoxy of each discipline: Industrial students were asked to design objects for a particular site and Interiors students could not use traditional strategies of fixed space division since the program called for conflicting uses for the same space. This unfamiliar territory was not limited to the studio project alone: many aspects of the experience were designed to introduce a context of innovative collaboration: students worked in interdisciplinary teams, professors team-taught between disciplines, some faculty were professionals who had never taught at all in any capacity, all in a context of considerable distraction – a study-abroad program for American students in Berlin. Working in unfamiliar territory presented opportunities for fresh and unconventional solutions that have been linked to more effective learning and teaching (Smith & McCann, 2001 and Chandramohan & Fallows, 2009). The problem being addressed by this paper is how to structure an interdisciplinary studio project so that students of each design discipline feel equally empowered to collaborate on a common goal. A particular challenge for interdisciplinary studios can be that one discipline of students feels they are in a supportive mode, rather than sensing that the exercise is central to their own concerns (Costantino, 2007). While there may be many strategies for encouraging effective collaboration between closely allied disciplines, including taking turns with discipline-specific knowledge (Full, 2015) or acting as expert consultants (Kara and Georgoullas, 2012), the strategy being tested in this course was to ask students to work outside of their comfort zone to find common ground in team-based solutions – in this case in the scale of furniture. The evidence of student work and feedback provides data for an analysis of the outcomes. There are several preliminary conclusions to be drawn from the experiment. First, the most successful student projects proposed designs that successfully integrated the expertise of both disciplines - solutions that depend on site-specific, furniture-based strategies that act in dialogue with a complex and demanding site. Students may not have envisioned these solutions without the challenge of working outside of disciplinary comfort zones or by finding common ground at the scale of furniture. Second, many students reported that they learned about the methods of the other discipline which may give them strategies in the future for working at various scale. Third, many industrial students found it more challenging to work in a specific context than the interiors students found it to work with custom furniture solutions. While interior designers may frequently solve design problems with furniture or other industrially-scaled objects, this group of Industrial students and faculty found it difficult to accept the terms of designing within the context of a dialogue with found conditions. It remains for future versions of this course to determine whether this was a condition of a particularly demanding site or whether disciplinary faculty presumptions were transferred to the students. As Jorge Silvetti has observed about interdisciplinary projects, ““as we take on new partners we must consciously and purposely strengthen our own identity by coming prepared with our own riches” (Silvetti, 2102). As evidenced by the work of the student teams, the structure of the studio assignment presents a strategy to reinforce these disciplinary riches as well as to tread on unfamiliar territory.

References:

  • Chandramohan, Balasubramanyam and Fallows, Stephen, eds. Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Cotantino, Tracie; Kellam, Nadia; Cramond, Bonnie; and Crowder, Isabelle. An Interdisciplinary Design Studio: How Can Art and Engineering Collaborate to Increase Students’ Creativity? Art Education Vol. 63, Issue 2, 2010.
  • Full, Robert J., Dudley, Robert, Hoehl, M.A.R., Libby, Thomas and Schwab, Cheryl. Interdisciplinary Laboratory Course Facilitating Knowledge Integration, Mutualistic Teaming, and Original Discovery. Integrative and Coparable Biology, Nov 2015, Vol. 55 Issue 5, pp 912-925.
  • Kara, Hanif and Georgoulias, Andreas, eds.; foreword, Jorge Silvetti. Interdisciplinary Design: New Lessons from Architecture and Engineering. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Graduate School of Design; Barcelona: Actar, 2012.
  • Smith, Barbara Leigh and McCann, John, eds. “Reinventing Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning, and Experimentation in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.