Interdisciplinary study programs growing


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UI student Heather Clausen changed her major twice before settling on her current choice.

She finally found an interdepartmental major — international studies — that will allow her to study ethnic conflict in Moscow next semester.

Like Clausen, a growing number of UI students are opting for multifaceted majors that combine different academic areas into one field, said Beth Ingram, associate provost for undergraduate students.

And those multifaceted majors — which include such areas as international studies, public health, and environmental sciences — differ from long-standing academic programs such as English and biology, because they often were created as a response to broader, global issues, Ingram said.

Since 2002, the number of students majoring in interdepartmental studies — a nontraditional route offering a broad range of courses — has increased from 10 students to 793 this fall after adding new academic tracks. During the same period, the number of actuarial-science majors jumped from 64 to 146.

In contrast, the number of English majors has dropped from 896 to 779 during that time, according to the Registrar’s Office.

Pat Folsom, the director of the UI Academic Advising Center, said she has seen a trend of students having double majors, adding certificates, or choosing interdisciplinary studies.

“I just think people are trying to leave the university as well-prepared as they can,” she said.

And universities are working to create programs that help them achieve that.

Public health is one of the fastest growing majors nationwide, with around 12 universities adding undergraduate programs in recent years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The UI offers five courses of graduate study in the College of Public Health, as well as an undergraduate certificate in global health, said James Torner, the head of the college’s epidemiology department.

“It is a way to take your undergraduate study and really apply it to helping a population,” Torner said, noting a growing demand for graduates in the field.

The U.S. will need an additional 250,000 public-health workers by 2020, according to estimates by the Association of Schools of Public Health.

Beginning this semester, UI undergraduates can also earn a 24-semester-hour certificate in sustainability, another burgeoning area. More than 70 universities have launched sustainability programs recently, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

UI sophomore Camden Kolb said he plans to complement his interdisciplinary degree with the certificate.

Finding out that the plastic bottles thrown away in mass quantity at the gym where he worked would stagnate in landfills for 700 years, he became invested in global environmental issues.

Though he hasn’t declared a major yet, he plans to join the 98 students studying environmental sciences this fall — up from 74 students in 2002.

Ingram said the trend of interdisciplinary studies is in part thanks to professors.

“Faculty love to work together, so when they see something, they create it,” Ingram said. “It is hard to create a program if there is no student demand for it.”

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