A Project-Based, Thematically Driven Interdisciplinary Collaboration

The goal of this pedagogical experiment is to discover how collaboration across disciplines can create a project-based and thematically driven course content experience that is more focused, satisfying, and relevant to 21st Century students.

Objectives of the experiment include the following:

  • To foster communication across disciplines, such that faculty have unprecedented understanding of content in collaborating courses.
  • To allow faculty to both observe and respond to the manner in which content of one course affects the collaborative whole, and how coursework calibration toward that goal can better serve the same.
  • To supercharge students’ ability to “connect the dots” among seemingly unconnected education experiences, and more clearly express possible synergies between general education and major curricula.
  • To create student-driven, thematically linked projects through an iterative, cyclical and process-centric approach to coursework.
  • To enhance conventional pedagogical outcomes with a suite of work that has cultural impact and significance beyond the academy.

Project-based and thematically driven course strategies are nothing new, although adoption in pre-collegiate education environments today seems more proliferate. The advantages are clear: students are more engaged, faculty break down artificial disciplinary walls, and education becomes relevant and interesting again. Lately, we have acknowledged that an educational model oversaturated by standardized testing has not improved student outcomes. As we admit to past mistakes, we can expect that pre-collegiate educators will soon be much more free to explore project-based and thematic models that captivate students with creativity, critical thinking, STEAM-based curricula, design thinking, interdisciplinary orientation, and other models that stimulate intellectual skillsets critical for survival in the 21st Century. If we don’t follow suit at the collegiate level, as these students enter our realm their righteous expectation for this kind of engaged learning will suddenly be met by a mystifying curricular disconnect: majors and minors with few if any links to their liberal arts general education curricula.

We propose to blend the content of courses in several areas around a group of projects based on the theme of transmedia narratives. This group of collaborators will include instruction in art, new media, IST, psychology, creative writing, and the possibility of including communications and music technology. This not coincidentally represents disciplines that routinely work in teams to produce large-scale, culturally significant transmedia narratives.

Like project-based learning, the concept of transmedia storytelling is also nothing new. The medieval cathedral combined multiple ways of developing various parts of the same narrative, through music, text, graphics, sculpture, stained glass, architecture, and interactive ritual, whereby community engagement with each successive media expression heightened overall understanding and enlightenment. To do this, these various fragments of the narrative needed to be satisfying in their own right, while at the same time appreciation for the whole was greater than the sum of these parts.

The only difference between older and newer transmedia narrative contexts is that many new media expressions have been added to the traditional list: cinema, games, virtual reality environments, graphic novels, websites, and interactive art installation. We are surrounded by an unprecedented embarrassment of riches, both in terms of content delivery and content delivered.

Organizing course content around a strong student-directed transmedia narrative can result in videos, games, graphic novels, art installations, short stories, novels and other cultural artifacts that can be enjoyed in whole or in part by a larger community. Authors of these artifacts will be guided by course content through a relevant team-building workflow that would include brainstorming, storyboarding, concept drawing, 3D modeling, scripting, coding, web design, fabrication, composing, compositing, marketing, testing, and data gathering. Not all team members need touch all aspects of the process: an English student interested in creative writing might stretch him- or herself into storyboarding or other areas of unfamiliar expression, but students enrolled in major-relevant courses do not necessarily commit themselves to the entire suite of coordinated courses. The aforementioned English student is free, but not obligated, to take an art or web design course.

Broader Impacts

One core element of the transmedia, interdisciplinary curriculum is the need to push student knowledge, synthesis, and work beyond the traditional walls of academia and into new realms of creative and applied contributions. One way of accomplishing that goal is to require the outcomes to extend beyond traditional classroom deadlines and assessment. As such the following mechanisms are proposed to enhance the student experience through increased motivation, larger community exposure, and increased social good.

1. An end-of-year showcase event for alumni, community leaders, and University Park administrators. This Development and University Relations focused event would create an evening of activity featuring brief presentation of the transmedia curriculum that introduces the student work and could include, but not be limited to, an art exhibition opening, a video game release and preview party, and a theatrical scene play or book reading by the student author. The unveiling of the next year’s transdisciplinary curriculum would also be part of the evening event.

2. A deliberate effort to push the student-generated products into the public sphere that includes material and monetary support from the University. Collaborative partnerships with community groups formed through ACCESS or the Civic Engagement minor allow for real world clients and usage of the final products. Publication outlets, both in print and online, would be sought after and be made available to students early in the process. Blogs, press releases, and university relationship-seeking are used as mechanisms to generate additional opportunities for student work or new transmedia curriculum themes or projects.


Beyond the traditional expectations of academic coursework, this experiment can include, based on student direction and initiative, some or all of the following:

1. Art Exhibition ready for public consumption

2. Video Game ready for early public consumption

3. Novella, short stories, poems, etc. ready for public consumption

4. Graphic Novel ready for public consumption

5. Faculty presentations at other Commonwealth, Professional, and UP events

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