by Ella B. Webster ’20
One day last year, the Chair of Biology, Chemistry & Physics Department, Dr. Will Case, mentioned to Assistant Professor of Art Professor Mary Carlisle that they should consider team-teaching an interdisciplinary course on the chemistry behind making ceramics. “The rest,” he says, “was magic.”
From their effort, the 2020 January Term class “Project Glaze” emerged. Dr. Case calls the class, which has since led to two students receiving funding for a South Carolina Independent College and Universities, Inc. (SCICU) research grant, “one of the most enjoyable teaching experiences I’ve had in my 13 years as a professor.”
“Interdisciplinary learning…promotes the integration of knowledge and opportunities to apply that knowledge in a way that may be unfamiliar to students.”
“I am a huge advocate of interdisciplinary learning,” Dr. Case said of his desire for the class to be team-taught. “It promotes the integration of knowledge and opportunities to apply that knowledge in a way that may be unfamiliar to students.”
The format of the class “balanced time in the chemistry lab with time in the ceramics studio,” said Case’s co-professor Carlisle. Students split their time for the month’s classes between learning chemistry concepts and practicing creating ceramic art. They soon discovered that the two subjects went hand-in-hand more than most people might expect.
Jordyn Welcher ’21, one of the students in the class, said that the combination of the two unique fields was what made the class so enjoyable for her. Welcher said that she never realized the extent to which “ceramic glazes and clays showcase tons of fascinating chemistry concepts.” Welcher, a biochemistry major, said that she enjoyed being challenged to apply her scientific knowledge in a new way. She came out of the class “with a new appreciation of ceramics and chemistry, as well as some really cool ceramic pieces.”
Another student, Sabrina Green ’20, is neither an art nor a chemistry major. Still, she said that taking the class “gave a new appreciation for both disciplines” and “encouraged to get out of comfort zone when taking classes.” She said that she counts this class as one of the “most fun classes has taken at Converse.”
At the end of the course, students created a final piece, which was judged based on several criteria by the two professors as well as two guest judges. The goal of the final project, Professor Carlisle said, was to “utilize the scientific method to design a ceramic piece that incorporate chemistry and art in a novel way.”
Students worked in teams to create their pieces, beginning with a hypothesis and then “designing and executing an experimental plan,” Professor Carlisle said. She also pointed out that the pieces were then judged not only on their appearance but also on the scientific ability demonstrated by the team.
Though the final competition was an exciting part of the class for both the professors and the students, what ultimately made the course a success was how much fun it was for everyone involved.
“This course is an excellent example of ,” Dr. Case said, “given that students from a variety of majors took the class.” The class embodied the traits that make Dr. Case so drawn to interdisciplinary teaching; students with various interests across many different majors were able to learn in a hands-on, involved way that allowed them to apply their knowledge to create a physical result. The class challenged students in the best way, said Dr. Case. They were able to learn about the unexpected differences between science and art “regardless of background.”
Professor Carlisle feels similarly; she said that thanks to the format of Jan Term, she and Dr. Case were able to teach “content that crosses over from science to art.”
She and Dr. Case were thrilled by the challenging and exciting nature of combining their two fields, and they are not the only professionals realizing the many benefits of such interdisciplinary courses.
One article on the topic by Daisy Rooks and Celia Winkler highlights some of the many benefits of this teaching style.
In their article “Learning Interdisciplinarity: Service Learning and the Promise of Interdisciplinary Teaching,” Rooks and Winkler note the ways in which successful interdisciplinary teaching can enhance learning. For example, they point out that through this teaching style, “students learn that knowledge is not compartmentalized and that in the real world, knowledge is transferable and cumulative.” In addition, they say, students are able to engage in thoughtful and meaningful dialogue and strengthen their problem-solving skills.
Utilized correctly, Rooks and Winkler say, interdisciplinary teaching is “driven by people who realize they cannot answer their own questions without engaging in some deep way with another discipline.” Both Professor Carlisle and Dr. Case embodied this realization, embracing the chance to work together to create an engaging exploration of their two fields. Professor Carlisle said of the collaboration, “People often think of art as a creative means of expression, but when it comes to ceramics, there is also a lot of science involved. I enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate on this course.”
“People often think of art as a creative means of expression, but when it comes to ceramics, there is also a lot of science involved.”
Professor Carlisle’s sentiment is shared by Dr. Case. In fact, he said, the two “had so much fun that decided to work with two students to develop an SCICU grant as a follow-up to the course.” The grant was recently funded, giving the students the chance to continue learning about the connection between ceramics and chemistry.
“We’re excited to see where the findings may lead,” said Dr. Case.
The passion of these students to continue learning about the course material speaks to the impact the class had on them and is an example of how meaningful interdisciplinary learning can be. Regardless of their prior knowledge of chemistry or art, each student who participated in this class was able to celebrate the process of learning and see the results of their work in their chemistry-inspired ceramic pieces.
There’s no doubt that students from this Jan Term class walked away with a deeper understanding not only of the course material, but also of communication, discussion and collaboration.
As for Dr. Case and Professor Carlisle, the two can’t wait to see where their student’s newfound knowledge and excitement to learn will take them next.