Let’s play: Co-creating award courses for designing, teaching, researching, and facilitating transdisciplinarity – Transacademic Interface Managers as an example

By Katja Brundiers and Arnim Wiek

Katja Brundiers (biography)
Arnim Wiek (biography)

Tanja Golja and Dena Fam concluded their article ‘Supporting academics learning to design, teach and research td-programs in higher education‘ with an invitation to other higher education and research institutions to share the state of play and their opportunities for collaboration. We are excited to respond to this call.

At Arizona State University (U.S.) various programs exist – across its schools and colleges – that allow students to work in transdisciplinary settings. These programs are avant-garde in many respects, e.g., pedagogical design, students’ learning outcomes, relationships with practice partners, implementation with real-world impact. Our experience with building a transdisciplinary and solution-oriented learning program at the School of Sustainability is documented in the article ‘Integrating Problem-and Project-based Learning into Sustainability Programs‘.

However, our examination of such programs internationally (PDF 840KB) shows that – with a few exceptions – many similar programs don’t entail a specific and scholarly-based transdisciplinary training module for students. Students learn transdisciplinary skills on the job. Many of the programs are taught by subject-matter specialists, who accumulated their transdisciplinary expertise through years of practice. They have not been trained as transdisciplinary experts. As Tanja Golja and Dena Fam state, there are no formal award courses for academics seeking to learn how to teach, design and research transdisciplinary programs at the undergraduate, graduate or PhD level.

Because of this situation, these courses are extremely intense for everyone involved. Faculty establish and manage transdisciplinary projects serving in multiple roles as subject-matter specialist, instructor and facilitator. Students engage in such projects excited about the prospect of ‘making a difference’. Their focus on the output often overrules the learning for, mindful designing of, and reflecting about the transdisciplinary process. Practitioners, those with on-the-ground experience of the problem, are the third partner. They enter such projects with the expectation of finding solutions and collaborating on their implementation. Yet, they often find themselves confined to the traditional role of client instead of a partner. (This situation is similar in research projects where the responsibility for stakeholder engagement is often delegated to one of the research groups. Integrating this group’s work with the other topic-oriented research groups, then generally proves to be challenging as engagement in a shared transdisciplinary process is lacking.)

Nevertheless, there are some exceptions and they provide important insights for the global conversation on transdisciplinary courses for academics and professors as well as for opportunities for potential collaboration, as called for by Tanja Golja and Dena Fam.

For example, we have developed the concept and position of the TIM, the Transacademic Interface Manager (PDF 680KB). In addition, we have integrated the competencies and tasks identified by pertinent fields (eg., transdisciplinarity, boundary organizations, transition management, and interactive sustainability research) into a training program. The objectives of the program are to teach transdisciplinary practices, including designing and facilitating them.

The program was developed for the graduate and post-graduate levels, but can be adapted to fit the needs of professors. While not every academic needs to be a TIM, in times of budget constraints it helps to have more academics knowing the basics of TIM practice, ie., advanced transdisciplinary practice.

Furthermore, academics can collaborate with a TIM to incorporate evidence-informed transdisciplinary practices in their research and teaching endeavors. We have successfully applied this dual approach of pairing research teams with a TIM across a series of research projects, which all entailed transdisciplinary courses that contributed to the research project (see: ‘Learning while transforming: Solution-oriented learning for urban sustainability in Phoenix, Arizona‘).

As an opportunity for collaboration among interested institutions, we have started offering such scholarly-based but practically-oriented transdisciplinary training programs at the Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, which is a collaborative endeavor between Arizona State University and Leuphana University in Germany. This builds cohorts of TIM-/transdisciplinary trained graduates and academics. We are currently exploring more options and welcome your inputs and interest in participating.


Brundiers, K., Wiek, A. and Kay, K. (2013). The role of transacademic interface managers in transformational sustainability research and education. Sustainability, 5, 11: 4614-4636.
Online: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/5/11/4614

Brundiers, K. and Wiek, A. (2013). Do we teach what we preach? An international comparison of problem – and project- based learning courses in sustainability. Sustainability, 5, 4: 1725-1746.
Online: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/5/4/1725

Wiek, A. and Kay, B. (2015). Learning while transforming – solution-oriented learning for urban sustainability in Phoenix, Arizona. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 16: 29-36.
Online: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877343515000652

Wiek, A., Xiong, A., Brundiers, K. and van der Leeuw, S. (2014). Integrating problem- and project-based learning into sustainability programs – A case study on the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 15, 4: 431-449.
Online: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/IJSHE-02-2013-0013

Biography: Katja Brundiers, MSc., is the Community-University Liaison for the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University (ASU). She developed and manages the School’s program for project- and solutions-oriented learning for sustainability bringing together faculty, practitioners, and students in transdisciplinary sustainability research endeavors. These transdisciplinary projects are part of the School’s undergraduate and graduate programs. To support capacity building for these projects, Katja developed and teaches an undergraduate course on professional skills in sustainability and offers training workshops for faculty and staff in designing transdisciplinary courses. Katja is also a Doctoral Candidate at ASU studying “Disasters as Opportunities for Change Towards Sustainability” which focuses on disaster-recovery processes in Aceh, Indonesia and Christchurch, New Zealand.

Biography: Arnim Wiek is an Associate Professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research group develops, tests, and evaluates transformational solutions to sustainability challenges. To support implementation efforts, the group collaborates with government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and citizens. The group is also involved in educational research and various training efforts. Current projects include “Transformational Solutions for Urban Water Sustainability Transitions” (NSF-funded Decision Center for a Desert City, Arizona State University) and “Educating Future Change Agents” (collaboration with Leuphana University of Lüneburg). He is also a member of the SESYNC pursuit on “Co-Creative Capacity”. Arnim had previous research and teaching engagements at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and the University of Tokyo. He is a Guest Professor at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany.

2 thoughts on “Let’s play: Co-creating award courses for designing, teaching, researching, and facilitating transdisciplinarity – Transacademic Interface Managers as an example”

  1. What an exciting series of blogposts! Indeed changing the way that Universities teach and research is paramount to addressing the complex, wicked problems we face as a global society. Currently, as Katja mentioned, students are far more interested in real world problem solving. Universities that facilitate this type of learning, while ensuring rigour in process and solutions, will lead in the transition toward sustainability.

    We know from sustainability science, from organizational change literature, and from real world application that interdisciplinary and trans-academic functions are integral to addressing the rapid change we are witnessing in biophysical, social and economic dimensions. Universities have a responsibility to innovate and to lead culture toward healthier, resilient and sustainable systems and societies. The University Sustainability Initiative at the University of British Columbia has called itself a ‘living laboratory’ for teaching, learning, research and partnerships that improve social, environmental and economic performance and outcomes. The Initiative identifies the University as an agent of change, facilitating change toward sustainability.

    As Katja and Arnim outline, the skills, capacities, and competencies associated with these changes need to be accounted for. ASU’s emphasis on promoting the softer skills of what is needed to encourage systems-thinking and activate systems change is not only leading-edge, but is also the way forward in building these skill sets in the professional world. In addition, to the competencies identified, softer skills such as coaching techniques, collaborative design and facilitation skills, cross-sectoral understanding, and the promotion of meaningful engagement over time are necessary in training faculty, students, staff, and partners to overcome disciplinary and sectoral boundaries.

    My company, FlipSide Sustainability, is currently focusing in this milieu. We are working to bridge the worlds of health and sustainability in order to bridge disparate but increasingly synergistic research and practice agendas on international campuses. We are currently working with UBC to promote pedagogy, curriculum and transacademic partnerships that facilitate this type of content and process learning. Moreover, FlipSide is in the midst of developing training programs, through its FLIP2.0 System, that trains, supports and promotes sustainability professionals in learning and applying these necessary tools and competencies for transitioning their organizations toward increasing sustainability integration and innovation. As noted in the previous two posts, learning these skills as experienced professionals has been the norm. Now we know enough about what is required to transition toward sustainability; it is as much content as it is process. To start nurturing interdisciplinary and transacademic skills and competencies in the University context, both as a unique pedagogical approach and as an applied science, is both exciting and necessary to meet the changing demands and needs of the world beyond the halls of the academy. As Leonard Cohen says, the cracks are where the light comes in. Re-examining what is taught, learned and promoted within these halls has great potential for building new skill sets, encouraging a new type of professional both capable and willing to participate in the messiness of meaningful and effective real world problem-solving.

    Thank you for your posts. They are very encouraging!

  2. Dear Katja and Arnim!

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to our blogpost and the links to resources. This has been very helpful in understanding how you work and ‘train’ transdisciplinary academics, so to speak.

    In teaching, designing and facilitating transdisciplinary practices, it would be very interesting to hear about what worked and what didn’t in the everyday process of learning how to teach in this way. We are actually in the early stages of developing a program to build capacity for academics to learn how to teach transdisciplinary practices and in the process reflect on and adapt the way they work in future projects.

    We would be very interested in staying in touch and contributing to this discussion
    Kind Regards


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