Interdisciplinary Studies (INDS) at UMBC is one of the longest-standing individualized degree majors in the country. Founded in 1969 as Option II (The traditional 13 majors at the time were known as Option I), the major was created to:
Afford highly motivated, intellectually mature students the opportunity to construct their own academic programs, with the hope that these students might better profit from the experience than from the traditional major programs… (Rosental, Alan. Evaluation of the Option II Program at UMBC. 1972.)
The Option II brochure also stated, “many kinds of programs are possible, limited only by imagination and ingenuity.”
In 1979, Option II was renamed Interdisciplinary Studies, to better reflect the nature of the major. A growing national movement toward multidisciplinary approaches to learning and problem solving demanded a coherent intellectual framework with which to integrate insights from different disciplines – a scholarship of interdisciplinarity. One of the first directors of Interdisciplinary Studies, Dr. Thomas Benson, served as president of the Association for Integrative Studies (AIS), and authored “Five Arguments Against Interdisciplinary Studies” (Issues in Integrative Studies 1 (1982) 38-48). The article produced a flurry of responses and helped to advance the national dialogue about interdisciplinarity and its role in academe. UMBC continued its presence on the national scene in 1987 when Director Slobodan Petrovich was elected to the AIS Board and then as president in 1991-1992.
In 2002, Patricia La Noue was appointed director and has led the program in raising its visibility on campus through such university wide programming as the Mosaic Roundtables, the Petrovich Lectures, the I-Team, the International and Global Studies initiative. Within the INDS program, Director La Noue introduced the requirement of a Capstone Research Presentation from all graduating seniors, and a core curriculum of courses to provide a consistent “backbone” of interdisciplinary scholarship to each individualized major.
Director La Noue also played a major leadership role on campus through her participation in a wide range of environmental and sustainable design initiatives, including the INDS student creation of the Herbert Run Greenway and the establishment of environmental science and environmental studies concentrations in INDS. These concentrations grew and became part of the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems. Over the years, students within INDS have helped UMBC identify the need for several new majors, minors, and certificates. Recent examples include Global Studies, Media and Communication Studies together with new tracks in existing programs such as Public Health within Health Administration and Public Policy, Game Development within Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, and Animation and Interactive Media within Visual Arts.
In 2013, Stephen Freeland began as Director of INDS – the first scientist to hold this position, with academic training that grew from evolutionary biology into bioinformatics and then astrobiology. Beyond this background in interdisciplinary science, Director Freeland brought with him great interest in the interface of science and religion, and science and the arts.
Within the first 24 months of Director Freeland’s appointment, the INDS program has undergone a significant degree of change and innovation. This includes a physical relocation on campus (to the ground floor of the newly renovated Fine Arts building), an organizational relocation (into the Division for Undergraduate Academic Affairs), significant additions to the curriculum and to the process by which students create their proposals for a unique, individualized major. These changes to the academic program are complemented by a major drive to build and strengthen community within INDS – the network of connections by which our students find their place in UMBC and in the world at large. New initiatives here include increased sponsorship of student led initiatives, introduction of a peer mentoring program, a revitalized Council of Majors and the formation an Interdisciplinary Living Learning Community. We are now turning to consider how to further strengthen connections with our network of alumni, beginning with a gathering during UMBC’s homecoming weekend and the distribution of a student-written newsletter to describe our work.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of UMBC, we are confident that Option II has grown into something of which its creators would be proud – and we are delighted to be presented with an opportunity to showcase this growth through an invitation to host the international conference of the Association of Interdisciplinary Studies in October 2017.