Interdisciplinary Arts Integration in Higher Education: A Global Perspective

The Global Perspectives Program (GPP) offered a unique opportunity to observe and explore ways in which the arts play a role in international higher education. As a member of the GPP, I observed and explored areas of arts impact and interdisciplinary arts integration at various universities throughout Switzerland, Italy, and France. This essay explores the role of interdisciplinary arts integration in the context of liberal education, arts as a form for student engagement, and arts as a form of contemporary pedagogy.


Interdisciplinary arts integration in the context of liberal education.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities defines liberal education as “An approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change.” (AACU, 2007). Liberal education provides broad learning across disciplines in combination with an in-depth study of a specific major. Liberal education instills students with a sense social responsibility, critical and analytical thinking, transferrable and practical skills, and the ability to apply these skills in real-world scenarios.

Arts integration is a pedagogical methodology that suggests the arts can be used to create and demonstrate knowledge across disciplines. The Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) program identifies arts integration as, “An approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form.” (The Kennedy Center, 2014). Through the creative process, students connect an art form to another subject area while meeting evolving objectives across disciplines.

An article written by Fareed Zakaria (2015) for the Washington Post, explains that a broad general education is necessary for fostering critical thinking, creativity, and innovation across disciplines. Zakaria explains that innovation is the result of interdisciplinary experiences that fuse arts, social sciences, and humanities into science, technology, engineering, and math. Arts integration provides a deeper and more meaningful experience through interdisciplinary practice that intrinsically fosters creative thinking and innovation.

At first glance, arts education is not all that different in Switzerland than the United States. The Swiss Education System approaches advanced arts education through an applied track. Students entering into arts majors can pursue bachelors or advanced master level degrees in a specific discipline however the applied approach does not offer the Ph.D. which tends to focus on research as the primary methodology. Ongoing discussions regarding the development and implementation of a Ph.D. in dramatic arts have been a recent topic within Swiss higher education governing bodies and the University of Basel. Offering a Ph.D. in dramatic arts would open the door for a deeper discussion regarding arts as a form of research and the role of arts research in the context of higher education.

Similar to many cases in the U.S. higher education system, the arts, humanities, and social sciences appear to be in service to STEM disciplines but are an integral part of the educational process. Interdisciplinary arts integration is about recognizing arts and design as an intrinsic property to STEM disciplines. An article written by Henry Fountain (2014) for the New York Times titled, “Putting Art in STEM,” recognizes engineering and art were not always completely separate disciplines. The article goes on to explain that while engineers focus on how something works, artists focus on the overall user experience and contribute greatly to the design elements of a given project. The article also notes that few schools within the U.S. higher education system require engineering students to take art. In the few instances where arts integration is a requirement of engineering programs, students notice a dramatic improvement in creativity, visualization, and using arts as a method of communication.


Arts as a form of student engagement

Utilizing the arts as a form of student engagement is another example of arts integration. Arts as a form of student engagement focuses on the intrinsic and instrumental values of arts programming. Intrinsic value is defined as personal value and includes captivation, pleasure, expanded capacity for empathy, cognitive growth, creation of social bonds, and expression of communal meaning. Instrumental benefits of the arts include improved test scores, improved self-efficacy, learning skills, health, development of social capital, and economic growth. These benefits are considered instrumental in that the arts are viewed as the instrument for achieving them. Arts as a form of student engagement combines arts experiences with arts practice. This leads to increased creativity and innovation that result in interdisciplinary arts experiences.

In June of 2016, The University of Zurich launched an interdisciplinary arts installation in partnership with an organization called Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art. The installation included 30 new productions exhibited in three different ways: at a satellite venue, in a classical art institution, and in the form of a film screened at the Pavilion of Reflections, a temporary pop up venue built specifically for the event. The event, titled Transactions was an interdisciplinary look at joint ventures and the result of encounters between international artists and representatives of Zurich-based occupations. In addition to the new productions, a historical exhibition comprised of more than 100 artifacts explored the various ways in which current and historical working worlds have been portrayed in art.

Another example of an interdisciplinary art installation occurred at the University of ETH in the form of a pop-up restaurant called Taste Lab, a research project designed to explore the intersection of science and food. The project was developed and implemented by a physicist and an economist, both alumni of ETH. Collaboration of this nature is not uncommon given one of the primary core values for ETH is creating a culture of empowerment inclusive of the scope for creativity and innovative ideas. Despite the aesthetic value of the pop up venue and intentional design elements of architecture and culinary interactions, the creators of Taste Lab viewed their project as a research project and not as an interdisciplinary arts installation proving that oftentimes arts impacts are happening without individuals being aware of it.


Arts as a form of contemporary pedagogy

The Academy of Art and Design in Basel is a living example of interdisciplinary arts integration and contemporary pedagogy. The Academy’s three pillar approach towards arts education included learning, research, and labs that utilize student centered and problem based learning as methods for knowledge creation and knowledge transfer.

Learning is undertaken through a cluster approach of foundational education. The first cluster focuses on art, design, and media based research which includes applied research, aesthetic judgement and critical methodology, production in art, design and media, and quality assurance. The second cluster called “Poetry of the Real,” includes examination of processes and methods, new forms of narration, poetry, and technique. The third cluster focuses on the impact of culture and the relevance of culture in society. This cluster provides in-depth examination on critical discourse, economies of aesthetics, and the impact of art, design, and media as forms of contemporary practice.

Arts as research represented the second pillar of practice at the academy. Research areas cover a wide array of process and practice including audio-visual media design in tertiary-level education, design immediacy, cultural spaces and design, critical artefacts, visual communication, analog and digital modeling, and many more. Arts as a form of research was also a focus of SUPSI which sought to connect artistic activities and the role of the arts in the lives and well-being of the people and the local area.

The third pillar of educational practice at the Academy of Art and Design is lab experience. Designed to foster creativity through the iterative process, lab requirements included a specific number of hours to be conduced in the area of arts practice as a form of research. Students follow the same type of scientific method used across STEM disciplines to develop practical application in their field. Notably, the Academy of Art and Design is holistically focused in visual arts and design with bachelor degree programs in industrial design, interior design and Scenography, art, fashion design, and visual communication. Master degree programs include studio design, visual communication and image research, fine arts, and teaching of art and design.

Arts as a form of research has been a growing trend within higher education which is slowly recognizing the value of the arts and design in contemporary problem solving. U.S. organizations such as the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru), the Arts Research Center at University California Berkeley, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech are only a few examples of university based organizations committed to advancing arts integration within higher education.

As societal problems continue to grow more complex, contemporary problem solving will require new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking in order to address challenges on a global scale. Interdisciplinary arts integration fosters creativity and innovation by recognizing arts and design are intrinsic to every discipline and necessary for collaborative problem solving. As interdisciplinary arts integration continues to grow as a focus of modern higher education, universities would benefit immensely through an open exchange of ideas, processes, and practices for implementation. This would lead to a future of higher education where interdisciplinary arts integration is truly a global perspective.


Association of American Colleges & Universities (2007) What is a 21st Century Liberal Education? Retrieved from

Fountain, H., (2014, October 31) Putting the Art in STEM. The New York Times. Retrieved from

The Kennedy Center. (2014) What is Arts Integration? Arts Edge. Retrieved from

Zakaria, F., (2015, March 26) Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. Washington Post. Retrieved from:


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