Interdisciplinary skills are being taught on new university social sciences courses, writes Kim Bielenberg
Courses in social sciences, arts and humanities in Irish universities are undergoing a radical shake-up as colleges try to make them more relevant to the workplace.
University College Dublin (UCD) and Maynooth University (MU) are among the universities that have made significant changes to their courses, and there is a new focus on interdisciplinary learning.
A growing number of courses in social sciences and arts are incorporating elements traditionally associated with hard sciences and computing.
“In the area of computing, often it is less about learning about the technology itself as how it is used in society,” says Tony Donohoe, education officer with the employers’ group, Ibec.
In a major departure in UCD, for the first time, students studying certain social sciences and humanities will commonly now study for a four-year degree, with an opportunity for formal work placements.
Leaving Cert students are able to change CAO preferences until July 1, and about 50pc of applicants generally do. Anyone considering taking up that opportunity will have to pay close attention to the content and length of courses, the qualifications and the terminology used.
There is some confusion over what social sciences courses comprise. They are commonly associated with sociology and social work, but the term incorporates a broad range of other subjects that includes economics, geography, archaeology and politics. In UCD the classification includes philosophy.
There is also confusion between sociology, the broad study of how society works, and social work, the hands-on job of giving assistance to individuals and families.
Professor Colin Scott, principal of the UCD College of Social Sciences and Law, says that with some of the university’s new courses, students will be able to draw on different disciplines to look at relevant issues. For example, they could be looking at the social implications of climate change or the use of data.
UCD has a new BSc in Computational Social Science. This focuses on issues such as “big data”, social media, and mathematical modelling as well as subject areas such as sociology, politics and economics.
Professor Scott says: “So much of what happens with computing and data has a social element to it. It is not just the data itself, but who is using it and why it is being used. These kinds of issues have been raised with the recent Facebook scandal.”
Those studying the course might become data analysts, programmers or researchers.
As part of UCD’s new humanities and social sciences four-year programmes, students can choose from a number of pathways, with relevant subjects clustered together. It is hoped that these pathways will provide clear direction when it comes to employment.
Among the new pathways is the four-year philosophy, politics and economics course – a combination that has been popular internationally, particularly among the political class in Britain.
Students could choose between these new four-year pathways, or a number of two-subject combinations.
There will still be separate three-year degrees in social policy and sociology (BSocSc), psychology (Bsc) and economics (Bsc).
Professor Scott says the opportunity to do internships will be a positive feature of the new four-year courses.
The Social Sciences Internship Programme at UCD promises to provide students with the opportunity to apply for an optional internship with a government agency, not-for-profit organisation or business.
Students will be given a work placement related to their field of study. The internship will be offered in third year and involves a one semester placement.
There will also be internships available in four-year humanities degrees.
UCD is not the only university to have made significant changes to its arts, humanities and social science programmes.
NUI Galway has introduced seven new arts degrees for enrolment with new courses including music, film and digital studies, arts and technology, and global languages.
Dublin City University (DCU), University College Cork (UCC) , the University of Limerick (UL) and Maynooth have also given their humanities programmes a recent overhaul.
At Maynooth, students are increasingly being encouraged to combine arts and science subjects.
The chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Dr Graham Love, has recently urged third level colleges to place emphasis on interdisciplinary learning.
He believes that students and researchers should work more closely with those operating in other disciplines. He said this was vital to help resolve global and local challenges.
In a recent speech, Dr Love asked: “How is our higher education system addressing the big issues of today and tomorrow? Climate change, migration, food security, data protection, cyber security, gender equality, globalisation, obesity.
“The answers will not be found in a single discipline but through co-operation among many disciplines. The lawyer working with the scientist; the engineer with the artist; the historian with the medic; the psychologist with the geologist.”
Dr Love told the Irish Independent that there is a growth in the number of courses that combine social science and computing.
“Students are having to understand how to deal with massive data sets in order to analyse trends and patterns.
“They are particularly relevant for social sciences and affect all walks of life. They could be administrative data sets from the Revenue Commissioners, scientific studies or information from the weather service.
“The capacity to take that data, manipulate it properly and form robust conclusions from it is becoming increasingly important in areas such as social science.”
He says the barriers between subjects are breaking down and, in the future, people are going to have to move between different fields and disciplines more comfortably.
This will equip them for careers where they may be switching between different areas of employment.
Dr Love says the use of work placements in social sciences and humanities programmes is part of a growing trend.
“It gives students practical experience of the work environment, and will enable students to be readier for employment.”