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10 Years of the Bridging Disciplines Programs

A history of the Bridging Disciplines Programs (BDPs), written by Dr. Lucia Albino Gilbert, Professor of Psychology and former Provost at Santa Clara University, and Dr. Jeanette Herman, assistant dean for Academic Initiatives and director of the BDPs in this school. While Dr. Gilbert was Vice Provost at the University of Texas at Austin (1999-2006), she and Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson founded the BDPs.

In spring 2000, Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson and Vice Provost Lucia Gilbert assembled an interdisciplinary group of faculty with a deep commitment to undergraduate education. This group, which would come to be known as the “Vision Committee,” included Pauline Strong (Anthropology), Ray Davis (Chemistry), Desmond Lawler (Civil Engineering), Meme Drumwright (Advertising), Paul Woodruff (Plan II), and Bob Duke (Music). Their mission was to enhance the first-year experience, offer opportunities to students not served by existing honors programs, and provide experiences that would integrate and define a student’s education at UT Austin.

The Vision Committee returned again and again to the idea of interdisciplinary concentrations that would strengthen the traditional major and better prepare students for a career. They envisioned programs that would encourage students to pursue interests outside their majors without adding time to their degrees, allowing them to integrate major, core curriculum, and elective requirements around a theme. Unlike existing concentrations at UT, these programs would engage students in research and internship experiences that could integrate an interdisciplinary concentration with a student’s major. The concentrations were conceived as a roadmap through UT’s already rich curriculum, a means to help students construct meaningful intellectual narratives that would connect their studies across disciplines and across their undergraduate experience.

Out of these conversations emerged the BDPs. In 2001-02, efforts to develop the BDPs focused on four initial themes: Information Technology, Environment, Children and Society, and Ethics and Leadership. Although they began the year in various stages, each of these BDP concentrations was able to offer a rich curriculum and had one or more students enrolled by May 2002.

From these beginnings, the BDPs have developed over the past decade to become one of the most popular certificate programs and the most visible source of interdisciplinary education at the university. From four concentrations in 2002, the BDPs now offer eleven certificates, with the most recent addition of Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies (2011). All of these certificates are recognized on students’ official transcripts when they graduate. The BDPs serve over 500 students in any given semester, and about 600 students have graduated with BDP certificates since the program’s inception. One of the key reasons for the success of the BDPs has been the faculty who oversee the programs, teach BDP courses, and mentor students in their research and internships. Over 100 faculty from every college and school at UT serve on BDP faculty panels.

The accomplishments of BDP students provide the most compelling evidence that the programs continue to enhance the quality of education at UT. The BDPs have supported over 700 undergraduate research projects, covering such diverse topics as migration in the European Union, medical ethics, and wildlife conservation in Tanzania. Students have also participated in over 700 internships through the BDPs, ranging from the Harry Ransom Center, to the Brookings Institution, to organizations in countries around the world. These achievements testify to how well the BDPs have realized the goals of the Vision Committee, and at the same time offer a glimpse of the programs’ promise as the BDPs enter their second decade.