Thinking interdisciplinary: The value of taking yourself out of your usual context

firbush feature
Photo credit: Emily Woollen (Mouth of Loch Tay at Sunset)

In this post, Emily Woollen, Academic Developer at the Institute for Academic Development, reflects on the power of combining outdoor activities and experiential learning concepts to inspire interdisciplinary thinking…

What does interdisciplinarity, outdoor activities and experiential learning all have in common? They challenge you by taking you out of your usual context in order to find new frontiers. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to explain!

For interdisciplinary students and researchers, working outside of your usual context and challenging yourself to think differently about a problem is the day-to-day mode of operation. However, when challenging ourselves intellectually, at the very frontiers of disciplines, the opportunities for confusion are also that much greater. Having worked in an interdisciplinary team during several of my postdoctoral years, confusion was almost a daily occurrence, and it became part and parcel of doing interdisciplinary research. As a result, interdisciplinary learning takes much longer, and finding those moments of clarity harder to find. For me, those moments of clarity did not occur when I was deeply engaged in the day-to-day work, but were largely achieved when I was physically outside of my usual working context thinking about something completely different. In my experience, when you allow your thoughts a bit of time to settle it’s often when things become clearer.

In a different life as an academic developer, I have recently had the pleasure of joining two separate groups at the wonderful Firbush Outdoor Centre, one of Edinburgh University’s many hidden gems. The first group was a group of Ingenious Women, the other the George Square Postdocs Retreat. Both events had similar aims: to create opportunities for networking and socialising with fellow academics and entrepreneurs; to create a sense of community; and to challenge participants to think more deeply about their research and careers. For me, an interesting element was that both of these groups had independently chosen a location that took participants out of their usual context, and incorporated outdoor activities into their programmes.

For the cynic amongst you, you are probably thinking that they chose this location as an excuse to go for ‘a bit of a jolly’, as they say in the UK. I can’t deny that there is an element of enjoyment in choosing an outdoor centre in a stunning location for these events. However, just taking this viewpoint misses the real value that exists in taking yourself out of your usual context. Be it sitting in a canoe out on a loch, or just enjoying a new view, it can have real value for allowing the time to reflect. The deep sense of calm that a vista can offer, or the achievement in doing something new, like hiking up that hill, should not be underrated.

Now, how does this all tie in with experiential learning? A recent Teaching Matters blog on experiential education by Dr Simon Beames, made me think that many of the key elements of experiential education he proposes can indeed be found in outdoor experiences, and, if applied to tackling the many challenges of interdisciplinarity, could be truly beneficial. Mapping on to some of Simon’s principles, the following links can be made between experiential learning, outdoor education and interdisciplinarity:

  1. Continuity: Linking the physical activity to the intellectual challenges of interdisciplinarity.
  2. Agency: Choosing the challenge/activity to focus on.
  3. Emotional engagement: The sense of achievement in completing a physical challenge that may be eluding you in your work
  4. Safe and supportive environment: Allowing participants to try new things and to fail without excessive consequences
  5. Reflection: Contemplating on how to use the experience to move forward or develop.

By approaching interdisciplinary challenges in the guise of an outdoor activity, you can almost ambush the confusion by tackling it in a safe and unthreatening way, and provide that space to look at it more clearly. The experiential education element provides the framework or structure for the physical activity to become educational and developmental in nature. The simplicity of doing something physical rather than mental can also be freeing.

Allowing that time for critical reflection, not just about the physical task at hand but crucially linking it back to the challenges of working and thinking at the frontiers, allows you to more deeply consider how you can tackle some of the many challenges of interdisciplinarity, and inform what you do next. We sometimes forget that learning is not limited to something we do as students in a classroom or as researchers at a desk, and allowing ourselves to experience learning in a new way can stimulate growth and development on all fronts. Particularly for interdisciplinary learners and researchers, I think experiential learning has real potential, whatever the context. Having an opportunity to un-muddle your brain and tackle some of the challenges in a stunning location and in a safe and supportive environment can only be a plus!

Emily Woollen

Emily is an Academic Developer at the IAD, working in the Researcher Development team. She has a BSc and a PhD in Ecological and Environmental Sciences, and has worked for several years as an interdisciplinary postdoctoral researcher.


  1. I totally agree with the idea of taking an interdisciplinary approach to tackling problems or challenges. Most interesting of all is that one gets to view an issue or problem from ‘another disciplinary’s persperpective’. Often as researchers/experts we tend to view the world rather narrowly. This limits the possibilities of chancing upon solutions, as one gets boxed up. After all the search is for the solution; hence that ought to be the focus, not necessarily the perspective or discipline from which one attacks the problem.
    Once a clarity or solution appears, it can be useful to deconstruct to understand how taking disciplinary different petspectives helped us get there. It adds to knowledge creation and provides a more holistic appreciation of problems.
    I have personally experienced this both in my academic endeavour and at work.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience of interdisciplinarity. I agree that getting that different perspective on an issue can be really refreshing and open up new paths for possible solutions. Deconstructing the solution once you arrive there is definitely a valuable endeavor, and one that we perhaps don’t often take the time to do. I personally learnt a lot about interdisciplinarity by reading about others experiences and journeys, and have found blogs a very useful source of information. I particularly enjoyed this one (, which for me sums up what it’s like to work in an interdisciplinary team. I can only encourage others to blog about their experiences as much as possible so that others might learn from them too.

  3. I completely agree with you, and want to extend some of the lived, physical experiences you speak about. When I work in residential outdoor learning centres, much of the different was the living arrangements. Temporary community, collaboration in things like wash up, or being quiet for others to get to sleep. New experiences such as my pizza being different from pizza at home, all take us on the journey to a new experience of the world, a different attitude perhaps, before we even embark on the much lauded ‘adventure activities’. Look up Dr Phil Simpson doctorate on “new space”. For me this continues in my role now, taking pupils and teachers into school grounds and local green space. Immediately we are out of ‘normal’, putting learners into a different mindset or view of the activity they are experiencing. To intentionally work interdisciplinary, or in new environments or ways has to provoke learning – and the skill of the educator is to have to strength to try it out, to create new learning spaces, physically, socially and mentally, and to work out why might, or what had happened, to be able to implement it again…

    • Thanks Matt for your inputs on learning in new spaces. It is indeed a skilled teacher who can bring all of these element together to create meaningful learning experiences. Though it might be difficult at times I think it is well worth the effort. I’m hoping to integrate some elements of learning in a new context or space into researcher development activities, and would love to learn more about others experiences of doing something similar. Thanks for sharing yours!

  4. Thanks for a fascinating blog, Emily: I could not agree with you more and I have experienced myself the benefits of “working outside of your usual context” combined with outdoor activities. A few years ago I was on a walk to Sgurr a’Mhaoriach in the Western Highlands organised by the Edinburgh University Hill-Walking Club (EUHWC). I was walking next to Peter Bell from the Informatics Department. Speaking to each other we found out that he works on voice production and was looking for useful practical applications for it, while I was working with patients with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and other neurological disorders who loose their voice because of their disease. Within weeks we have established a collaboration, involving my then PhD student Philippa Rewaj. This led to the development of the high profile Speak Unique Voice Bank Project

    Although Peter and I work in almost neighbouring buildings around George Square (Informatics and Psychology respectively), this highly successful interdisciplinary collaboration would have never happened without our joint walk in the Highlands. For a picture of this trip, see my tweet commenting on your blog:

  5. I am so pleased that others are finding common ground in this blog, which just illustrates the value that lies in doing something different for a change and talking to someone new to generate new ideas and opinions. I hope this will inspire others to go outdoors with purpose to find those new frontiers to explore!

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