As a teen growing up in Nova Scotia, Canada, Interdisciplinary Studies Lecturer Sharon Woodill didn’t see college in her future.

“In my household, people who went to university were either lazy and didn’t want to get a real job, or they were really, really smart,” Woodill says. “I didn’t think I fit into either of those categories, so after high school I just went out and got a job.”

Fast forward a couple of decades and not only did Woodill end up going to a university, she spends much of her time teaching and conducting research at one. Already the recipient of several prestigious awards, Woodill recently added the UCF Research Incentive Award, which recognizes the outstanding impact of her scholarly work, to her accolades.

The road to success in academia for this self-proclaimed “eclectic scholar” has been anything but straight. It wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that Woodill decided to give college a try and, even then, she only felt qualified to major in a subject that she’d already been studying her whole life: music.

“I’ve played the piano ever since I can remember,” Woodill says. “Going into college, I thought that was the only area of academia I might be remotely capable of doing.”

By the time Woodill realized that music actually wasn’t her calling, she had already completed a bachelor’s degree in jazz piano. It was at this point that Woodill first started looking at her future through an interdisciplinary lens.

“I tried to figure out how I could capitalize on the background and the courses I had already taken and then be able to turn that into a degree where I could still study the types of things that I wanted to study,” Woodill says.

She ended up pursuing a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies, an experience that gave Woodill a taste of what she now calls the alchemy of interdisciplinary studies (IDS).

“When most people think about IDS, they envision this mixology approach. You take a little of this academic area, a little of that academic area, shake it all up and you get this nice little unique academic cocktail,” Woodill says. “But I like to think of IDS as interfacing with different domains of knowledge, different ways of knowing and different modalities of knowing. It feels like magic, because what happens is unpredictable.”

Those moments of enchantment are not the only thing that drives Woodill’s passion for — and success in — IDS teaching and research. Interdisciplinarity, she believes, holds the key to solving some of humanity’s most contentious problems.

“That’s what I find so thrilling about interdisciplinary studies,” Woodill says. “It’s not just about addressing isolated academic problems. It’s actually a framework for interfacing with knowledge, information and other people that has the benefit of doing good in the world.”

IDS instructors try to instill in their students this framework of cognitive skills and core competencies, like perspective taking, critical thinking, and integration. But these competencies have traditionally been facilitated through face-to-face interaction and, since the pandemic, more and more classes are being offered online. This dynamic is the focus of Woodill’s current research.

“The question that I’m researching is, ‘How do we replicate what we normally do in a human-to-human context, in a digital environment?,’ ” she says. “The bulk of my research is focused on developing digital tools for interdisciplinary studies to help students grow these skills even when they’re in an online setting.”

Recently, Woodill has been partnering with a human-computer interaction specialist to devise a theoretical framework and analyze learning management systems to identify features that could be useful in this context. One promising solution that is emerging is artificial intelligence (AI).

“If we are trying to somehow simulate human interaction in an online environment, I can see how AI could be a great tool for us to apply,” Woodill says. “There are going to be some ethical concerns we’ll need to address. We’ll have to figure out how we’re going to manage data sharing, privacy and student expectations, among other things. But here at UCF, we can do that hard work and be the leaders in using this technology in ways that are effective, ethical and beneficial.”

In addition to her research and teaching, Woodill has been instrumental in establishing UCF’s diversity leadership certificate and minor. The program recognizes that, while students may be building their education portfolio in other areas, employers across a wide range of industries are increasingly focused on diversity and inclusion.

“Even if they’re planning to work in business or nursing or some other field, students will be able to add this credential to their established areas of study,” Woodill says. “They’ll be able to say, ‘We know what diversity means.’ They’ll know what it looks like and have some good strategies for how to improve diversity metrics in whatever area they’re studying.”

Woodill’s work in building up this program is just one example of how she’s putting her experience and knowledge toward a single goal: Doing good.

“These concepts of empathy, open mindedness, tolerance of ambiguity and difference and embracing diversity, that’s not just academic for me. It’s actually a framework of the way I want to live my life and inspire others to live their lives, as well,” Woodill says. “Ultimately, whether it’s through research, teaching, my everyday life, what I do in my spare time, it’s actually the way I want to live.”