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The Edge Effect:

A Metaphor for Interdisciplinary Work

by James H. Mathewson, San Diego State University

The "edge effect" is a familiar phenomenon to ecologists and offers a useful analogy for thinking about traversing boundaries between academic disciplines. The edges in this case are the narrow zones of overlap between two differing ecosystems. In these zones, or "ecotones," the species diversity is high due to the periodic visits of organisms adapted to one or the other of the larger systems plus a few organisms found almost exclusively in the ecotone. Species that are well adapted to the ecotone can take advantage of the resources of both adjacent systems as well as the flows of organisms, energy and materials across the edge. Birds living along the fringes of forests or the edge of the sea are good examples.

I will avoid pushing the parallels; over-extension is one of the pitfalls of analogy. You can elaborate the idea from your own experience. The point here is that academics are well adapted for survival and success in their disciplines, but are uneasy when making excursions outside their normal habitats and sources of sustenance. It is in our own characteristic attitudes and working habits that we must look for answers to the questions:

One of the limiting attitudes is that of a hierarchy of esteem or "pecking order." Mathematicians are accustomed to being given priority status, followed by physicists, and so forth. To the practitioner in the physical, earth or life sciences, the edge of mathematics has often seemed like a barrier rather than a transition. Standards are a vital goal, not a defining condition. We should never equate standards with depth or breadth of "coverage." Preoccupation with the credibility of the discipline literally marginalizes "outsiders," including students. Students don't yet have disciplinary commitments in secondary school. In college most of them are in so-called service courses. The classroom manifestation of a discipline should be an inviting gateway into a field. In looking for models of effective integrated curricular collaboration, I think we should seek out the professionals who are comfortable crossing disciplinary boundaries and find out what works for them.

James H. Mathewson is a Research Associate at the Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education at San Diego State University. He holds degrees in both biology and mathematics, and can be reached by e-mail at jmathews@mail.sdsu.edu.

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Last Update: June 17, 1997