Teaching cross-disciplinarity in the natural sciences – a case for Natural Philosophy


  • Joan Onate Narciso ETH Zurich, D-HEST
  • Zarah Walsh-Korb University of Basel/ETH Zurich (D-BSSE)




Interdisciplinarity in the natural sciences is a phrase one regularly hears in the context of teaching and learning, at all levels of study, from the classroom to the research environment. But what do we really understand from this term? In most cases, from the perspectives of the physical and life sciences, it is used to describe the overlap of chemistry and materials science, molecular biology and genetics, or biochemistry and biophysics, for example. While these interconnections across different fields broaden the horizon of the student, they do not always allow them to situate their learning in a broader societal context.


The natural sciences have the potential to solve many problems facing the future of our planet and these solutions come from interdisciplinary research. However, creating solutions is only part of the story. As scientists we also need to understand how to exploit our ideas, whether they should be exploited at all, and how our research fits into the world around us. To ensure future generations of scientists can both understand and solve the problems in the world around them, we need to broaden the concept of interdisciplinarity in teaching and learning. We argue that science teaching and learning must include cross-disciplinary interactions, that is, teaching a subject from the perspective of another subject, such as philosophy, or adopt different scientific philosophies to ensure the innovators of tomorrow can make well-balanced choices about the impact of their discoveries on communities and societies at large.


This approach of cross-disciplinarity is not without challenges. Integrating humanities modules with science modules in the curriculum will be beneficial, as it will introduce cross-disciplinary perspectives into teaching in the natural sciences from the bottom up. This encourages us, as teachers, to view our subjects in a more philosophical manner, and impart this deeper perspective and understanding on our students. With a specific focus on the teaching of chemistry and its cognates, subjects that have less of a modern tradition of conceptual thinking, we provide literature arguments supporting the case for philosophy in science, perspectives on how to address cross-disciplinarity in chemistry teaching, and some classroom activity suggestions to support cross-disciplinary learning