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May-June 2011

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Complex Systems, Interdisciplinary Collaboration, and Institutional Renewal

Research-intensive universities enjoy—or suffer—a paradoxical reputation: They are thought to be dedicated to both cutting-edge research and to the preservation of the canon. They are seen as broad and diverse communities of scholars with a vibrant collective intellectual life, yet also as silos of disciplinary entrenchment. Most significantly, they are thought of as places where the complex problems of our society are studied intensely but from which solutions are rarely forthcoming.

And those contradictions do indeed exist inside most research universities. They typically have formal infrastructures to promote collaboration and innovation, as well as external sources of research funding to encourage interdisciplinary efforts that have the potential for major breakthroughs. However, the incentive structures that are in place for individual faculty members are firmly grounded in the assessment of their reputations within and their impact on established fields of study, as reflected chiefly through publication in disciplinary journals. There is no consensus regarding the most fair or effective means of evaluating faculty work that does not fall within a traditional scholarly paradigm.

Interdisciplinary scholarship also is hard to do. The boundaries of a problem and the appropriate tools for investigating it are undetermined. Collaborators from different disciplines may lack a common conceptual framework or a common vocabulary for grappling with a problem of shared interest. Indeed, the larger and more diverse an interdisciplinary group is, the less likely they are to come together or endure as a cohesive and productive entity. Even if these gaps are bridged, a successful outcome to an intrinsically challenging, real-life problem is far from certain.

In light of the number and diversity of factors that hinder successful interdisciplinary collaboration, it is remarkable when they succeed. But the UVA Bay Game—an ongoing collaboration at the University of Virginia among faculty members from nine schools—has bucked the odds. Here, we examine the history and evolution of this project as an emerging success story to highlight the components that have been instrumental to its durability and productivity, in the hope that it can provide a model for similar efforts elsewhere.

Jeffrey Plank ( is an associate vice president for research at the University of Virginia (UVA); he leads the UVA Bay Game and other related projects at the university. Plank recently completed a three-volume study of architectural history, architectural photography, and building restoration—using the American architect Louis Sullivan as his case study—with Crombie Taylor: Modern Architecture, Building Restoration, and the Rediscovery of Louis Sullivan (William Stout, 2009).

David Feldon ( is an assistant professor of STEM education and educational psychology at UVA. He examines the development of expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through a cognitive lens and studies the effects of expertise on instructors' abilities to teach effectively.

William Sherman ( is an associate professor of architecture and the founding director of the OpenGrounds initiative in the Office of the Vice President for Research at UVA. An architect and educator, he examines the interaction of dynamic cultural and environmental processes. His design for an addition to the UVA School of Architecture won awards from the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

Jennifer Brammer Elliott is a Ph.D. candidate in the Curry School of Education who studies complex systems learning with games and simulations. Additionally, she is developing visually immersive, mobile, participatory learning environments that help students make connections between abstract and concrete principles in STEM education.

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