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Joining Forces

Joining ForcesFaculty and students who participated in the first set of University Seminars agree there is value in collaboration.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.22.09] Somewhere between childhood and the working world, many of us seem to forget the true value of sharing. Last fall, however, with the introduction of University Seminars, around 50 students and faculty discovered the value of interdisciplinary work, as scholars and researchers from the university's various disciplines and campuses tackled complex societal issues by exchanging ideas and knowledge.

The brainchild of Provost and Senior Vice President Jamshed Bharucha, the program officially launched in the fall of 2008 with two courses-"Water and Diplomacy," attended by students from the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and The Fletcher School, and "One Health," which included students from all three campuses.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor and Dean of Research for the School of Engineering Shafiqul Islam says the "Water and Diplomacy" idea has been in the works for two years, but was finally made a reality last fall as a University Seminar.

"This class was an experiment," says Islam, who co-taught the seminar with Fletcher School Professor William Moomaw. "It brought together students from two completely different mindsets, from disciplines that normally do not talk, making them jointly define water problems from all over the world."

According to Islam, every water issue can be analyzed under one of two systems: the natural system, in which scientists and engineers analyze the quantity, quality and ecology of water, and the societal system, in which policy makers and social scientists look at water issues as they relate to economy, governance and personal values.

The 28 members of the class were split into 14 groups, with each member representing a different discipline. The groups then worked to create a case study of their choice, looking at water basins from all over the world, ranging from Colorado river in the United States toto the Ganges river in South Asia toLake Victoria in Africa.

Civil engineering student Malek Al-Chalabi (E'09) says the seminar was a departure from his other courses, since it was based upon conversations and exchanges amonggraduate and undergraduate studentsand professors rather than textbooks. It was about sharing new ideas rather than learning from books and journal papers.

"I would love to see academia head in this innovative direction," Al-Chalabi says. "I liked being able to negotiate ideas, meeting and having conversations with students from all different backgrounds. It was challenging."

Assistant Professor Gretchen Kaufman and Associate Professor Joann Lindenmayer at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine presented students from all three Tufts campuses with a similar challenge during their course "One Health," which explores the intersection of human, animal and environmental health and how they affect one another. Elena Naumova of the Public Health and Family Medicine department at Tufts Medical School in Boston and J. Michael Reed of the biology department on the Medford/Somerville campus joined the effort, breaking the distance barrier through video conferencing.

Naumova says the incorporation of technology was valuable in showing how collaboration can transcend geographical limitations.

"Most students are used to having a class in one location, with one mindset, but in my work I collaborate with many international researchers, making e-mail, video conferencing and other technology an important factor in keeping these collaborations going," Naumova says, adding that, occasional sound and video glitches aside, participants "start to appreciate technology and learn how it helps to break down the barriers of long distance."

As a student, Stephanie Bostic, research coordinator in the Calcium and Bone Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, says the seminar was a nice break from the single-disciplinary coursework which tends to have a narrower focus.

"When you're looking at agriculture, researchers often focus on one impact, neglecting the rest, but in real life, decisions need to account for a broad array of impacts," Bostic says. "The cross-section of students from across the university helped us look beyond a single outcome, and consider the community, the wildlife, the health of calves and beyond."

"Unlike other courses, this involved little didactic lecture, and relied mainly on speakers who could offer their experience or insight into a specific area, furthering discussion and group work," adds second-year doctoral student and veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Steele.

As part of the University Seminar agreement, the professors must host the same seminar at least twice, though Islam says he is hoping for more.

"Right now we have a proposal with the National Science Foundation under review which will give us a five-year grant to help us to develop an integrative Water and Diplomacy as a program at Tufts," Islam says. "That would be the ultimate success of this seminar."

For now, however, Islam says the group is working to create a searchable web database called AquaPedia, which will house information on water studies across the globe, using the 14 case studies that came from their first seminar as an example.

"These are classes that don't necessarily fit in a particular mold," Islam says. "They call for a different kind of student, one motivated enough to step out of the typical structured curriculum and explore tacit knowledge by synthesizing information from disparate sources. It is this synthesis of information that creates the 'wisdom' which cannot be easily communicated through structured courses."

"I really hope to see the University Seminars succeed," Lindenmayer says. "Tufts struggles with the distance between campuses, but I think the fact that the University Seminars supports the idea of bringing together people of different backgrounds to uncover new discoveries is very promising."

Additional courses slated for the academic year of 2009-2010 are currently in the developmental stages and will include studies of child and youth development, the obesity epidemic and stem cells, human regenerative technologies and society, which will be co-taught by faculty from the Schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Dentistry the Interfaith Center and Community Health Program.

"Studying this broad range of topics in an environment with students at different stages of their personal and professional development will undoubtedly provide unique perspectives into issues of global concern," says Professor Jonathan Garlick DDS, PhD,director of the Division of Tissue Engineering and Cancer Biology at Tufts University School of Dental Medicineand one of the teachers of the stem cell course. "I sense that this seminar will promote innovation of thought and discovery of new knowledge that will evolve in meaningful and unexpected ways." 

By Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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