Launchings from the CUPM Curriculum Guide:
Expanding the Boundaries of the Mathematics Curriculum

David M. Bressoud October, 2006

We often talk a good game of how useful mathematics can be to other disciplines, but that message can be lost when all our students see is an insular department. When our students see a department that is engaged with, working on the questions of, actively supporting another discipline such as biology or economics, that usefulness takes on a reality that cannot be ignored. One of the most powerful signals of the centrality of mathematics is the creation of programs that cross disciplinary lines.

Such programs are easiest to establish at large universities with diverse faculty interests and significant resources. The Illustrative Resources lists many interdisciplinary majors. Some of these come under the general heading of Applied Mathematics such as those at Brown University and the University of Washington, Others bridge Mathematics and Computer Science as at DePaul University, Harvey Mudd College, and CUNY Staten Island. UCLA, Indiana University, and Simmons College are among those who offer joint majors in Mathematics and either Economics or Finance. Joint majors in Mathematics and Biology are offered at Harvey Mudd and at Rutgers.

Creating interdisciplinary majors is not easy. Such a program must be anchored in an active collaboration between members of each department. It must be supported by the departments involved. All faculty within these departments must be proactive in encouraging students to take advantage of this opportunity. Such a program also requires a critical mass of the faculty who may not work directly with the other department but who are willing to teach the courses that support this major. This cannot happen without strong administrative support, including time and resources to address the implications of such a joint major and to develop and modify the courses that will support it.

There are many easier steps that a department can undertake. In some cases these might be with the intention of eventually developing an interdepartmental major. But the steps are useful in themselves. They can help to strengthen the existing program and to attract majors.

The simplest step is to engage in dialog with another department, talking about courses from one department that draw on or prepare students for a course in the other department and looking for ways to help students transfer their knowledge from one course to the next. For example, the use of a project in a math course that is drawn from a biological example that will be studied in greater detail in the succeeding biology course will help students to see the connection. To be a meaningful connection, such a project would need to be one that all of the faculty agree to incorporate when teaching this course.

The next step is to begin to modify existing courses or to create new courses that reflect overlapping interests and are constructed so as to appeal to students in both majors. An example is a course of financial mathematics designed to attract business or economics majors. Again, this cannot be carried by a single faculty member or even a single member from each department. Several faculty need to be ready to step in to carry this course forward. This both strengthens the course, which will benefit from contributions from many perspectives, and helps to ensure the longevity of the project.

The next step is the development of a track within the major or the creation of a minor. This requires support from the entire department because it entails a commitment of the department’s resources. To try to develop a track or minor without first gathering broad support is to invite disaster. The department must be prepared to teach the required courses even when the faculty member who was the initial spur is on sabbatical. If small steps have preceded this one, if there is a solid if small core of faculty who are strong believers in the new program, and if the department is able to see the potential for clear benefits from the proposed program, then it should be possible to get this broad support.

Money will not buy change, but all of these steps are helped if money is available. It often is. NSF and other funding agencies look favorably on interdisciplinary initiatives. Deans and provosts like to see departments cooperating and seeking ways to build on the other’s strengths. Even small amounts to feed the people who gather for interdepartmental dialog or to give a little extra travel money to those developing projects can help bring more people to the door. Course releases and significant stipends can help convince those with a strong interest to move this to a high priority.

Building interdisciplinary programs is almost always slow, hard work. The key to success is to bring as many people on board as possible: usually one or two visionaries, a small group that is willing to work hard to bring this vision about, a sizeable body that is willing to participate, and the entire department as observers whose reactions and comments are taken seriously. Change can happen.



Do you know of programs, projects, or ideas that should be included in the CUPM Illustrative Resources?


Submit resources at www.maa.org/cupm/cupm_ir_submit.cfm.


We would appreciate more examples that document experiences with the use of technology as well as examples of interdisciplinary cooperation.


David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he was one of the writers for the Curriculum Guide, and he currently serves as Chair of the CUPM. He wrote this column with help from his colleagues in CUPM, but it does not reflect an official position of the committee. You can reach him at bressoud@macalester.edu.