April 1, 2014

Integrative Scholarship

by Alexandra Urban

Alexandra D. Urban ‘15, who is concentrating in Educational Neuroscience, has spent much of her Brown experience focused on integrative scholarship.  She reflects on how TRI-Lab fits into her larger course of study as well as how it exemplifies the goals of interdisciplinary study and applying academic research beyond the classroom.

Michael Salerno Photography


At the Dean of the College and Campus Life staff retreat last week, I had the pleasure of hearing about the university’s new focus on integrative scholarship.  This concept, taken directly from Brown’s recently approved Strategic Plan, highlights the importance of fostering interdisciplinary study and thinking critically about how to apply academic research.

Deans, faculty and staff gathered together to learn more about integrative scholarship, how it’s currently being implemented at the university, and future plans to expand such programs.  At this event, I had the exciting opportunity to share my experiences of TRI-Lab, Brown’s flagship initiative for integrative scholarship.  In fact, I had the chance to explain my broader course of study at Brown and how TRI-Lab has fit into my larger framework of integrative scholarship.

Freshman year, I volunteered at Asa Messer, an elementary school in Providence, to help run an afterschool mathematics program for second and third grade students.  In addition to several other experiences teaching and tutoring, my time at Asa Messer kept me asking: What teaching methods work best?  How can we identify which techniques lead to optimal student learning?  I desperately wanted to study these questions in my college courses and began dedicating any project or paper I could tailor to this science of learning.

By the middle of my sophomore year, I discovered that the Neuroscience, Education, Mathematics and Cognitive Science courses that I was so drawn to could be combined to create a single course of study: thus, I designed an Independent Concentration in Educational Neuroscience, in order to understand how we learn on a biological level and to apply this knowledge to improve teaching.  Creating my own concentration was a direct result of wanting to apply academic research to a broader context, to take what we know about the human brain and change what happens in public school classrooms.  In essence, this is exactly what we do at TRI-Lab every day: take academic research and twist it inside out in order to find new applications for improvement in our community.

My independent concentration then led me to the Brown International Scholars Program (BISP), which funded a research project of my own design.  Just like TRI-lab, I was able to tackle challenging problems with academic rigor previously gained: I travelled to New Zealand to investigate how Neuroscience evidence relates to their teaching methods in their high-achieving, public school system.

Finally, in my junior year, I have had the incredible opportunity to become a part of Brown’s inaugural TRI-Lab.  Each week we get together to share knowledge, brainstorm ideas and challenge each other’s preconceptions about how the Rhode Island landscape of child services could and should be changed.  We bring together anthropologists and advocates, doctors and designers, educators and economists – the strength and breath of our interdisciplinary team is extraordinary.

Taken together, TRI-Lab represents a quintessential example of integrative scholarship.  Not only has it played an important role connecting academic coursework and community impact in my microcosm of a Brown experience, but it also acts as a crucial step in the university’s path towards greater communication between disciplines and stronger emphasis on applying research to benefit our surrounding Rhode Island residents and beyond.  I am immensely grateful for my involvement in TRI-Lab and hope that many more students will have the opportunity to test the waters of integrative scholarship as I have.


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