From a Transformative Gift to a Hallmark of the Duke Experience

September 5, 2018

Bass Connections annual report

Five years have passed since Anne and Robert Bass provided the transformative gift that enabled Duke to create Bass Connections. Since then, more than 2,000 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff have engaged in over 300 team-based, interdisciplinary research projects. These teams have tackled societal challenges around the world, ranging from the health needs of refugees in Durham, to strategies for using American forests and wetlands as carbon sinks, to higher education access in Brazil. Countless others have been exposed to collaborative, interdisciplinary inquiry through innovative courses affiliated with the program.

Bass Connections has become a hallmark of the Duke experience. Many incoming students identify the program as a key reason to attend the university, and our annual evaluations attest to its impact on undergraduates’ identification of academic passions. Graduate students who participate gain leadership and research experience in a team-based environment – important skills for careers inside and outside academia. For faculty, Bass Connections advances research agendas and provides exposure to innovative approaches to teaching.


We continue to learn from the extensive experimentation in the program. In 2015, our Information, Society & Culture theme launched Data+ – a remarkably successful 10-week summer research experience in which student teams use data science to address tough interdisciplinary questions. Drawing on the Data+ model, in 2017 we launched Story+, a parallel summer program run by the Franklin Humanities Institute that immerses interdisciplinary teams in humanities research and public storytelling. Story+ teams have created digital exhibits, produced short documentary films, designed teaching and research modules and documented the stories of diverse communities. Already sinking roots at Duke, Story+ is inspiring new campus and community partners to engage students in collaborative research around humanistic inquiry.

Building linkages across all our schools and interdisciplinary units, Bass Connections depends on partnership. In the past year, we have placed greater emphasis on embedding key elements of our model in core courses. There are now 37 semester-long classes affiliated with Bass Connections, each infused with interdisciplinary, team-based learning. This ongoing pedagogical conversation has sparked the redesign of gateway courses and the incorporation of interdisciplinary lab experiences into curricula across campus.

As Bass Connections has matured, we increasingly field inquiries from educational institutions looking to learn about our approach to collaborative, interdisciplinary, problem-centered inquiry. We also have begun to experiment with how to connect students and faculty from other universities (especially those close by) to work on our research teams.

Bass Connections’ growth and integration into the Duke curriculum means that we now face crucial questions about the program’s scale and reach. Given increasing demand from students and faculty, we aspire to expand capacity over the next decade, so that opportunities for collaborative research remain open to all corners of the university, and we can build new partnerships with community organizations both in our own neighborhood and further afield.

As the program continues to evolve, we want to thank those who have made the first five years of Bass Connections so fruitful. We are inspired by the enduring creativity and commitment of our faculty, students, staff and donors, and grateful to all those whose ideas and hard work have helped establish this vital approach to integrating collaborative research, innovative education and engaged dialogue with the world beyond the university.

Edward Balleisen, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies
Laura Howes, Director, Bass Connections

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