DISI: A Model for Practical Interdisciplinary Education and Social Impact

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Carnes, Nicholas William

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Introduction Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators (DISI) is a model for organizing graduate students at universities to do interdisciplinary, problem-oriented projects for non-profit clients. In its first year, 149 students from eight different Duke graduate schools will complete 24 projects for North Carolina social organizations. Eighty-five percent of students and 100 percent of clients expressed satisfaction with their first semester DISI project experience. As a result, The Scholar Strategy Network (SSN) is exploring the possibility of expanding the model to other Universities and has asked me to answer the following question. Policy Question How can graduate students set up an interdisciplinary, client-oriented service organization?


The MP analyzes the steps DISI’s Co-Founders took to set up DISI at Duke and their successes and failures. It is too early to tell if the model will work in the long term. However, others who want to set-up similar organizations at other universities should use the following steps:

  1. Analyze the graduate education structure of their school, determine if interdisciplinary collaboration is possible, what form it will take, and who are the key stakeholders to invest in the idea.
  2. Recruit student leaders, have student leaders meet with key university and community stakeholders to solicit funds, student recruiting relationships, and non-profit project relationships.
  3. Visualize an organization structure and a project team structure, using information provided here as a guide. Consider the academic calendar and the student culture of all graduate schools.
  4. Create initial branding material. Recruit a few initial projects and determine initial Skill Share events to entice student participation and help.
  5. Have initial investment meeting to recruit student volunteers to help over the summer. These students are potentially the first executive board members.
  6. Use summer to plan and begin to plan and execute student recruitment, partner recruitment, fund solicitation, and skill share events as possible. This could include creating materials, outreaching to orientation leaders to plan recruitment events, and e-mailing non-profits.
  7. When the school year begins, execute student recruitment and project matching processes. This includes interviewing project managers.
  8. Monitor progress, execute Skill Share events and social events. 1.3 Methodology My strategy for answering the policy question included the following four major components.
  9. Background research and a review of the relevant literature.
  10. Review of the interdisciplinary landscape at Duke and other schools.
  11. Review of the steps DISI’s Co-founders took to start the organ Duke.
  12. Review of preliminary DISI data.





Heller, Daniel (2014). DISI: A Model for Practical Interdisciplinary Education and Social Impact. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/8553.

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.