By BinBin Pearce, Carolina Adler and Christian Pohl
Are there innovative methods that enable students to frame and confront the complexity of real-world problems in the context of sustainable development? Which learning approaches help students engage with design thinking to understand a particular system, and also to start thinking about responsible solutions? Which approaches enable students to reflect on their own actions, as well as become aware of the importance of diverse stakeholder perspectives and how these play out in real-world contexts?
What demand is there for guidance on how to teach in these challenging contexts across disparate fields, as outlined in the inspiring blog posts by Tanja Golja and Dena Fam (on supporting academics’ learning to design, teach and research transdisciplinary programs) and by Katja Brundiers and Arnim Wiek (on co-creating award courses for designing, teaching, researching, and facilitating transdisciplinarity), especially for those who have the most direct interaction with students?
Inter- and transdisciplinary and design thinking approaches to teaching and learning are relevant for many different disciplines, including public health, engineering, and environment systems sciences. Many academic departments can be involved: information technology, atmospheric physics, chemistry, social sciences, ecology, and others. They have much to both teach and learn from each other. For example, there are similarities and inspiring differences in how a single concept, such as “problem framing” can be captured and communicated.
Learning objectives that are inherently linked to inter- and transdisciplinary and design thinking approaches in teaching still need to be clearly defined and assessed. These are often times connected to metacognitive skills, higher-order cognitive skills (creativity, reflection, etc.), and social emotional skills (perception, empathy, etc.). These skills, perhaps, are what make the difference between living with creativity, flexibility, and openness, rather than going through life with passive acceptance.
However, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how effectively these skills can be taught within a classroom or in the context of higher education. A particular challenge is in demonstrating evidence-based rationales for how these meta-cognitive skills are attained through assessment and grading; given how the assessment of these skills is not necessarily amenable to conventional forms of metric or scaled grading and evaluation.
There seems to be a thirst for knowledge about how to make interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity a reality in academic life, rather than merely an ideal or concept. There is an interest not only in finding ideas about how to teach, but also how to implement and collaborate better on transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research projects.
These are key findings from a workshop entitled, “Sharing experiences in transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and design thinking-based teaching” organized by the Transdisciplinarity Lab (D-USYS TdLab), a teaching and research unit based within the Department of Environment Systems Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland on 17 February 2016. The workshop was part of a larger teaching-focused grant by ETH Zurich (Innovedum) to explore innovative methods that enable students to frame and confront the complexity of real-world problems in the context of sustainable development. Experts from the U.S., Chile, the Netherlands, Australia and Switzerland shared their experiences in fostering learning approaches and environments that enable student-directed inquiry, in contact with real-world cases. Keynote presenters were Karin Fortuin (Wageningen University), Luis Gonzaléz Fuenzalida (University of Chile Santiago), Linda Neuhauser (University of California Berkeley), and BinBin Pearce (ETH Zurich).
We were surprised and encouraged by the demand for the workshop. We now know that it is very possible to tap into a network of people who also care about the same things we do and that we can call on each other for help and perspective. Especially when sufficient institutional support and investment are available, the assessments and activities that are possible to implement in higher education are truly inspirational. As a result of this workshop, we are encouraged to continue connecting with others as we push forward with our own pursuits. We see colleagues who have been successful at implementing new ideas in higher education as a model of what we can do in our institution.
Let’s continue building this great community of people, and create the sort of education for students that pushes both them and us to be our best selves. We’d love to hear your comments and reflections.
Biography: BinBin J. Pearce is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer working at the Trandisciplinarity Lab, Department of Environmental Systems Science (D-USYS), ETH Zürich. She is developing new teaching concepts within the field of environmental sustainability, especially integrating design thinking with systems thinking, and research-oriented course designs for Bachelors and Masters students at D-USYS.
Biography: Carolina Adler is Scientific Coordinator/Researcher/Lecturer in the Transdisciplinarity Lab, Department of Environment Systems Science, ETH Zürich. Carolina’s research interests and activities centre on problems of policy relevance, focusing on the effects and challenges of global change in society. She was awarded the 2010 Harold D. Lasswell Prize for best dissertation in the field of public policy.
Biography: Christian Pohl is co-director and Senior Scientist in the Transdisciplinarity Lab, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zürich. His main interest is transdisciplinarity as an intellectual tool to address socially relevant issues, like environmental problems or sustainable development. In his research, he accordingly focuses on transdisciplinary research as a process of knowledge co-production that interrelates research and societal change towards sustainable development.