Pioneer scholars employ interdisciplinary strategies in STEM research

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For most of his life, Jack (astronomy, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from China, didn’t think much about the night sky. Living in a city, the stars he could see were always dimmed by light pollution. A trip to New Zealand changed everything. Suddenly, he was able to see brilliant constellations, and his interest in astronomy was piqued. At Pioneer, Jack did research on white holes. In his research, he quickly realized that he could use tools from other disciplines to solve problems in astronomy––namely, physics and math. “At Pioneer, research is not limited to a given subject… When working on white holes, I derived the pressure by working with a mathematical equation of an idealized sphere,” he says. Jack explains that physics is even more relevant because “Astronomy is actually derived from physics. Physics is the study of objects, and astronomy is also the study of objects—they are just far away. I found physics to be a great tool when studying astronomy.”

Most education systems are organized by discipline with little crossover between different subjects. While this is a convenient way to organize content––or in the case of Pioneer’s academic placement system, to connect students with research concentrations that match their interests and talents––there is much more overlap between disciplines in the real world. This is particularly true in STEM fields, where the insights of one discipline can be used to solve problems in another. Hung (engineering, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, says,     “People start putting different STEM topics in different boxes, and when it’s not in their box they get kind of surprised by it. But you can take a step back and see the field of STEM as an overall broad topic where things aren’t put in boxes and they’re sort of intertwined in different ways… you are never going to innovate or create things solely in one field.” Pioneer’s highly specialized research concentrations encourage interdisciplinary approaches to research. 

Some STEM fields are inherently interdisciplinary. For May (environmental studies, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from South Korea, it was particularly important that her cohort sessions explored a wide range of topics across disciplines. “For fields that deal with interdisciplinary subjects—especially environmental studies, which has to involve biology, chemistry, as well as politics and policy aspects––it’s really important that we explore as many fields as possible before settling on a particular topic,” she explains. 

Nabaa (engineering, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, took an interdisciplinary approach both to customize her research topic to her interests and to become a more well-rounded engineer. Nabaa knew she wanted to incorporate medicine into her research paper, and came up with the idea to design a device that would help elderly patients take the correct dosage of medication at the correct time. “For the first month… [the course] was about electronics and coding, which doesn’t involve medicine. But I already had knowledge about biology and chemistry from school and my personal activities. So I was able to combine those with my engineering research, and that made me a very well-rounded engineer. I was able to pull all these topics that I’m interested in and that are relevant to my research goal from my [cohort sessions] and from my courses outside Pioneer,” she explains. 

Conducting research in STEM means making creative use of the tools available to solve a given problem. More often than not, these tools come from a wide range of disciplines––whether it be a mathematical equation that reveals something about an astronomical body or insights from the medical field that inform an engineering design. Pioneer scholars learn to be flexible and apply knowledge across contexts, becoming creative problem-solvers.

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