Breaking Down Barriers Between the Traditional Subjects” with Affrodit

The Affrodit educational project is designed to help undergraduate students think outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries and better appreciate the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach. It was conducted by research professors from the Paris Museum of natural history, the Pierre et Marie Curie University (UPMC) and the Paris-Sorbonne University.

The Affrodit educational project is designed to help undergraduate students think outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries and better appreciate the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach. It was conducted by research professors from the Paris Museum of natural history, the Pierre et Marie Curie University (UPMC) and the Paris-Sorbonne University.

The first product was an online course unit on cross-disciplinarity in the history of the natural sciences.
Affrodit, which was selected from a 2014 call for projects by the Sorbonne’s Collège des Licences, is one Sorbonne University’s initiatives aimed at updating its undergraduate programs by encouraging multidisciplinarity and innovative approaches to teaching. It offers online training modules for second- and third-year undergraduate students at UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne designed to “deconstruct” the concept of a discipline. 


The project was first conceived at the Paris Museum of Natural History. The museum offers a highly interdisciplinary Master’s in Evolution, Natural Heritage, and Societies that attracts not only students with a scientific background, but also students from the human and social sciences. They all take a series of core courses before specializing in one of six areas: Ecology, biodiversity, evolution; Mechanisms of life and the environment; the Quaternary and prehistory; etc. “For the first two weeks of the Master 1, to give them a glimpse of the variety of disciplines that are out there, we offer a series of talks on disciplines ranging from the study of meteorites to paleontology, cellular biology, and museum science,” explains Pascale Debey, professor emeritus at the Museum and sponsor of the first phase of Affrodit. “That’s what gave us the idea to create an undergraduate course with research professors from UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne. Even though general education at universities is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, students themselves are not necessarily open to the concept. That’s why we thought it would be helpful to show them that it’s not just a question of juxtaposing two different disciplines, and that the subjects we’re used to today haven’t always existed: they have evolved over time, reflecting not only changes in our scientific knowledge but also the political and social context.” 


From evolution theory to dating methods: the benefits of a cross-disciplinary approach


The project garnered a great deal of enthusiasm from the start. Fourteen research professors from three institutions, representing a diverse range of specialties (paleontology, physical acoustics, ecology, evolution, art, and archeology) joined the team. With help from an education engineer to stage the classes and a director to develop the video content, they produced an initial online course unit – Evolutionary Histories – covering cross-disciplinarity in the history of the natural sciences. 


In addition to an introduction to set the scene (the concept of a discipline, the relationships between disciplines, etc.), this unit consists of three parts that concretely demonstrate how the definition of a discipline can evolve and how an interdisciplinary approach is beneficial. The first covers the major unifying theories built on arguments from different disciplines, using the theory of evolution as an example: how Darwin gradually developed this synthesis from an array of components drawn from wildly diverse specialties, ranging form comparative anatomy and paleontology to the laws of population dynamics developed by Malthus in the field of economics; the historical and social context in which he did so; etc.


The second chapter takes a closer look at the scientific methods that originate in one discipline but are used far beyond it, such as dating methods (dendrochronology, carbon 14, etc.): what were their limitations, how did practitioners try to overcome them using other disciplines, etc.


Finally, the last part analyzes the representation of the Neanderthals and the Gauls (images of the body, material culture, and environment) to show how reconstructions of the past reflect the state of knowledge at a given point in time and are heavily influenced by the society of that time.


Designed for both science and humanities students


This course unit represents three ECTS credits, representing 30 hours of work, a few of them in the classroom: at the beginning of the course, to present the modules to the students; halfway through, for tours of laboratories or technical platforms related to the topics they are studying; and then for the course final. Accompanied by plenty of diagrams, videos, and illustrations, it was designed to be accessible to students from a variety of backgrounds in both science and humanities. For example, it will be offered to students taking the minor in SHS (human and social sciences) at UPMC in the second semester of the 2015-2016 year, and the goal is to include it in other undergraduate degree programs, such as UPMC’s life sciences and chemistry majors, or Paris-Sorbonne’s art history and archeology majors, as well as the school’s joint archeology and geography degree. 


Even this is just the first stage. Initially supported through 2015, Affrodit has obtained additional funding from the Collège des Licences until the end of June 2016 to expand its content beyond the natural sciences. “Apart from improving the existing courses based on student evaluations, we will take advantage of this second phase to enrich the current module or develop new ones, taking examples from other scientific fields with more of a connection to the human and social sciences,” explains Debey. “This will allow the program to be included in a wider variety of degrees.” The chapter on unifying theories, for example, will add developments on plate tectonics and the arts. In addition, the part devoted to methods will include a chapter on 2D and 3D imaging techniques, which are being used more and more frequently not only in the sciences, but also in art history and archeology (to reconstruct monuments and works of art); Sorbonne University institutions are already carrying out several interdisciplinary projects in this area(1). 

Eventually, Affrodit may also be offered to Sorbonne University Master’s students. In the even longer term, the project team is even thinking of applications for the general public, such as a MOOC on the theory of evolution. 


(1): Sorbonne University supports several interdisciplinary projects on 3D imaging: Plemo 3D (developing innovative 3D modeling and measurement tools), FaciLe (digitally reconstructing a face from a skull), NumérO (reconstructing the border of the Théâtre antique d’Orange). In addition, a UPMC research professor belonging to the Affrodit team is coordinating the European Waves program, whose goals include improving imaging techniques by cross-referencing skills from different disciplines.

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