Marilyn McNamara ’15 knew going into her final project for “Music in the Air: The Science and Soul of Music” that she wanted to repurpose a lunchbox into a ukulele. What she didn’t anticipate was double majoring in physics and math after that course ended. The class, co-taught by Professors Arlene Goter (music) and Jolene Johnson (physics) challenges students to build musical instruments using basic physics principles.
“I was a philosophy major before and had just started taking STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] classes again because I missed them,” says McNamara. “Additionally, I play trombone and am very passionate about music. So a class that combined physics and music was irresistible to me.”
Goter and Johnson’s pairing of seemingly disparate disciplines is a unique method of learning that is actually quite prevalent at St. Catherine University.
“It’s the culture here at St. Kate’s,” says Lynne Gildensoph, biology professor and department co-chair. “We have a history of intentionally partnering with colleagues from other departments to team-teach classes, and we have the support and encouragement to do it. This kind of interdisciplinary collaboration, and interdisciplinary learning for students isn’t as common, in my experience, at a public university or a larger research university.”
The idea of integrating methods and analytical frameworks from more than one academic discipline to examine a question or problem dates back to the 18th century, according to research in the Journal of Social Science Education. Interdisciplinary reflection is part of Catholic Intellectual Tradition, as well.
“Catholicism aims for an understanding of the world around us so we can be closer to God,” says Bill McDonough, associate professor of theology. “And that’s what Vatican II reminded us to do: turn back to the world to learn from the world. Catholic Intellectual Tradition is a rich and living approach to knowledge, which involves vigorous dialogue and rigorous inquiry that tends to combine many disciplines, including classic texts and technology.”
Today, “interdisciplinary” has become a catchphrase. Its use is spreading, reports the scientific journal Nature, and it describes scientists and social scholars coming together to solve increasingly complex problems like famine or climate change. At St. Kate’s, however, the word carries another definition. Interdisciplinary means different academic departments joining forces to challenge students to look through new lenses.
Here are a few examples:
THEOLOGY AND NURSING
Dealing with death and disease, or with difficult and seriously ill patients, on a daily basis “can do a number on you,” says Mary Lagaard, assistant professor in the graduate nurse practitioner program. “And it doesn’t help that healthcare professionals are being pushed to do more in less time. Burnout is a huge issue in primary care.”
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, healthcare workers have elevated rates of depression and anxiety linked to job stress, which leads to higher rates of substance abuse and suicide. And, in so many cases, the result is compromised patient care and outcomes.
Determined to offer a solution, Lagaard is partnering with McDonough to pilot a new course called “Welcoming Spirituality into Healthcare.” Their goal is to build resiliency in healthcare professionals through faith and “whatever brings [them] meaning,” says McDonough, who coordinates the University’s Master of Arts in Theology program.
“Spirituality in healthcare isn’t new,” he adds. “In the 1500s, disease was seen as the result of moral failure, or it required exorcism. Spirituality got thrown out completely because we overplayed it.”
In their class — offered this spring to graduate-level theology and nursing students, and all healthcare workers, including chaplains — Lagaard and McDonough will examine a host of Eastern and Western practices for resilience, such as compassion, loving kindness and meditation. But it won’t focus on religion.
“This course has nothing to do with an indoctrination,” notes McDonough. “We will talk about personal, team and organizational challenges to resilience, and get participants talking about their own strategies for sustaining their spirit. We will also help them recognize the connection between self care and patient care.”
BIOLOGY AND ART
This fall, Gildensoph will teach “The Art of Biology” for the third time with Carol Lee Chase, who chairs the Department of Art and Art History. The course blends botanical and biological anatomy with observational drawing and watercolor painting.
“This is a very satisfying class to offer because the intersection of art and science isn’t always apparent to students,” explains Chase. “Some of our students are art majors with drawing and painting skills, but little interest in biology; others are science majors with no art background and they come in saying, ‘I can’t even draw a straight line.’”
The class provides a way for students to learn the basics of drawing through observation. Adds Gildensoph, “In biology, we used to draw everything. That’s how we understood anatomical structures and functions, and identified them for a test, a research project or field guide. These days, students use Google to look up anatomical structures, but they lose tactile learning by doing that.”
Right away, students study plant structures such as leaves, roots and flowers by dissecting them and making detailed drawings of what they see. In the studio portion of the class, students work on sketching and drawing techniques. About a month in, Marilyn Garber, director of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art, shares her watercolor techniques with them. During the second half of the semester, students focus on patterns in nature, such as shell spirals and leaf arrangement in plants.
“There are absolute benefits from collaborating with Lynne,” says Chase. “Interdisciplinary learning opens up channels for connections, which is especially important in our disciplines, because people don’t often think of artists and scientists as likely collaborators.”
The pair is currently working on a research paper that addresses the historical connections between science and art (artists as scientists and scientists as artists), the rise of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) in the teaching of K–12 classes, and how their course is effective at braiding lab sciences with studio arts.
“Look at it this way,” offers Chase. “What do scientists do when they have an idea? Experiment. What do artists do when they have an idea? Experiment. We are not that different.”
MUSIC AND PHYSICS
McNamara ditched the Darth Vader lunchbox she found at Goodwill for Captain Kirk and his crew because the Star Trek one offered better resonance and louder sound.
“Each material vibrates in a different way, and it is possible to shake apart whatever you are building if you choose the wrong material,” she explains. “I was introduced to this phenomenon in Professor Johnson and Professor Goter’s class, and it’s something I still really like thinking about.”
“Music in the Air” pairs physics and music to encourage students to look at both disciplines through a different lens.
“Sometimes students wonder why they need physics or music,” says Johnson, the physicist. “They see a reason and connection in this class. We’re giving students a better understanding of why liberal arts courses are important.”
Johnson and Goter, the pianist, alternate lecture periods.
On music days, students learn how to recognize different types of music and how to construct basic musical units. They explore what dividing a string does to the pitch. They also attend a concert with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. (For many, it’s their first time seeing musicians live.) On physics days, the students discuss the properties of sound. They experiment with oscillations, plucked strings and air column vibrations, and auditory range in the lab. (To play most musical instruments, you have to create standing waves on a string or in a tube or pipe.)
“The professors also did a good job of encouraging us to consider the scientific background of music, and how it relates to the emotions we feel upon hearing that music,” adds McNamara.
For their final project, the students were required to build a simple stringed instrument out of everyday objects, compose a piece of music and perform it with the instrument. The one-of-a-kind creations include a birdhouse balalaika, a plastic bowl mandolin, a cigar box guitar, a tambourine banjo and, of course, the lunchbox ukulele.
“We want students to think beyond what’s in front of them and be able to see things that aren’t apparent,” says Goter. “Not everything’s black and white. Now they can listen to a guitar or piano and understand what generates the sound, and know that there are multiple explanations of the world.”
For McNamara, interdisciplinary learning left her forever changed.
“I’ve been a musician for over half my life,” she says. “Still, I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes beyond the most basic facts. This class fixed that in short order. It changed my life. I plan to get a master’s degree and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. My end goal is to become an aerospace or aeronautical engineer.”