Collaborative education at Duke boosted by $50M gift

Posted January 22, 2013 1:23 p.m. EST

— Duke University students and faculty will be able to collaborate more across disciplines, developing the broad expertise needed to tackle complex societal problems, thanks to a $50 million gift from Anne T. and Robert M. Bass of Fort Worth, Texas, officials said Tuesday.

“Bass Connections” will bring Duke undergraduate, graduate and professional students together on project teams with faculty and others to address issues that require different perspectives. The initiative will focus initially on five areas: brain and society, education and human development, energy, global health and information, society and culture.

“We are grateful to the Bass family for embracing Duke’s vision of education as something that extends beyond what happens in a traditional classroom,” Duke President Richard Brodhead said in a statement. “Because Bass Connections will involve students and faculty at all 10 Duke schools, it will have a transformative impact on our entire campus. Students will pursue new educational pathways and join with faculty on interdisciplinary teams to apply their knowledge and skills to urgent social challenges.”

Duke has previously promoted interdisciplinary scholarship in its departments and schools and, more recently, through seven university institutes that cut across academic boundaries. Bass Connections will build on that by providing extensive new curricular options and team-based activities for students.

“We believe that this gift will enable broad collaboration among scholars across multiple disciplines to develop truly innovative approaches to some of the most pressing societal problems,” Anne and Robert Bass said in a statement.

Bass Connections has already begun to foster collaborations across disciplines among Duke faculty. For example, Guillermo Sapiro, an engineer, and Helen Egger, a child psychiatrist and epidemiologist, have begun discussing how inexpensive video cameras with special software might serve as diagnostic tools to track anxiety triggers in young children. They hope to recruit students interested in education and human development, or in information, society and culture.

Similarly, students might join new faculty teams combining expertise from the school of the environment, the business school and Duke’s brain institute that seek to identify better ways of crafting environmental messages for consumers. Other faculty project teams hope to address questions such as: How can pediatricians best encourage expectant mothers to follow prenatal nutritional advice? Which behavioral patterns in young children are the best predictors of teenagers dropping out of high school? How should officials promote wood-conserving cooking stoves in developing countries?

The university plans to use $25 million of the gift in a matching program to encourage gifts from others.

Anne and Robert Bass have previously funded the Bass Program for Undergraduate Excellence to improve undergraduate teaching and the FOCUS program, which offers entering students integrated courses developed around interdisciplinary themes.

Anne Bass has been a Duke trustee since 2003 and is one of three co-chairs of Duke Forward, the university’s $3.25 billion fundraising campaign. The Basses are the parents of four children, including Christopher, a 1997 graduate of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.