Breaking the departmental bonds in Carnegie Mellon education
By Evan Sundwick, The Tartan, October 26, 2005
Ever since Andrew Carnegie's grand institute began its College of Fine Arts program early in the school's history, the academic culture here at CMU has officially embraced students yearning to expand their horizons. But students haven't always found an easy access to "interdisciplinary" education, and departmental walls were often hard to scale.
In recent years, though, the University has launched several programs for studets who are especially interested in taking a multidisciplinary track through their college careers.
The Bachelor of Humanities and Arts and Bachelor of Science and Arts programs, which began in 1993 and 1999 respectively, have students study in the College of Fine Arts, and either the Humanities & Social Sciences school or the Mellon College of Sciences. Each year there are only about 20 students accepted into the two programs combined; when prospective students are first applying to Carnegie Mellon, they must be accepted to both CFA and either H&SS or MCS.
All BHA and BSA students take a seminar together in their first year, which lets them interact further with students studying other disciplines. They also get to know Patricia Maurides, the director of both programs; she was hired in November 1999 to take control of the BHA program and spearhead BSA's rollout, as well. Maurides has a long history at CMU --- she attended as a graduate student, and earned her MFA, here in art.
Maurides has always been aware of the interdisciplinary options at Carnegie Mellon. "When I was a graduate student, something that was celebrated was interdisciplinary thinking and practice, and I think it's just been here for so long," she said with a chuckle.
Though the two programs are under the same director, they each have their own curricula determined by the individual schools. While neither program is a true double major, the students are expected to take a wide variety of classes in each school.
"They come to Carnegie Mellon as citizens of two colleges," Maurides said. However, the BHA program requires even more. Students in the BHA program are required either to complete some kind of project that merges the two fields they are studying, or to justify their reason for studying both fields with plans for the future.
The project requirement for BHA has led to students accomplishing very impressive things. "They know what they want, and my job is to push some of the bureucracy out of the way so that they can do that," Maurides said.
Jeff Walsh, a BSA student who focused on biology and architecture, led a team of art, design, and biology majors to study how hospital room design at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and influenced the rate at which patients recovered. Graduate Kathleen Agres used the BHA program to help her study music therapy at the Hillman Cancer Center, and she received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for another project.
The unique potential of BHA and BSA students is apparent to Harriet Schwartz, the program's career consultant. "I think all Carnegie Mellon students are motivated," Schwartz said, "but this bunch seems to be extraordinarily motivated, and I think incredibly self-directed.
"They're very passionate about ideas, they're very curious, and then they have the more practical abilities to pursue those interests in a more independent way than you would if you were just following a more standard curriculum."
Carnegie Mellon has always claimed that it championed interdisciplinary study as a university. However, until recently, there had been little evidence to back that stance up. Maurides believes the BHA and BSA prograns are prime examples of CMU finally making good on its promises.
"I think we are so way ahead of the curve," Maurides said. "BHA has been around since '93, and I think we are now beginning to see seedlings of other programs at other universities. I think the people who put together the BHA were visionaries, and you can see that now at other universities trying to develop programs. The challenge is always in advising, and that you need to have a home for the students."
Luckily the small number of students who join the BHA/BSA program every year makes it easy for program administrators to keep a close eye on them. Maurides believes that this is probably the strongest feature of the BHA/BSA program.
"When you have a program that crosses different colleges, it can't be the students who are going back and forth on that bridge; they need to have an advocate, they need to have a director, an advisor --- a home, or things can be lost. It seems pretty self-evident," she said.
The BHA/BSA program isn't the only interdisciplinary curriculum track that Carnegie Mellon offers. Under a new director this year, the Science and Humanities Scholars program takes incoming students and gives them a unique college experience. The program ensures that the students take classes in both science and humanites, and it works to create a tightly-knit group of students who grow up together at Carnegie Mellon.
William Alba, the SHS program's new director, is very quickly settling into the position. The entry process of SHS is different from that of BHA or BSA, he said. First-years from both humanities and science schools are offered entry into the program, after which they are assigned group housing on the fifth floor of New House. They have extra general education requirements on top of those required by their major; because of this, SHS students often end up taking many of the same classes together.
The SHS program takes a different approach to education than the BHA and BSA programs. Rather than guiding students down a path toward multidisciplinary projects like the BHA program, SHS lets students form their education without stressing a need to combine disciplines together.
"They form a nice tight community of scholars; they study together, they form friendships, and that first-year experience living together reverberates through the years. And in effect, what the university has done --- and I'm not sure if this is by design or not --- but in fact what it's done is create a residential college," said Alba.
Alba sees a long way to go for interdisciplinary study at Carnegie Mellon. "There is a quirk of the University that we want students to be interdisciplinary and yet we don't have many courses that span those disciplines," he says.
For all of Carnegie Mellon's rhetoric over the years, the University is only now really starting to capitalize on it --- and in the process, opening up avenues to students that were never available before.