Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments

machiel -keestra_jan-2018
Machiel Keestra (biography)

By Machiel Keestra

How can we adequately prepare and train students to navigate transdisciplinary environments? How can we develop hybrid spaces in our universities that are suitable for transdisciplinary education?

These questions were considered by a plenary panel, which I organised and chaired at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Germany. Three major educational requirements were identified:

  • long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations
  • teaching particular dispositions and competencies
  • preparing students for intercultural endeavours.

Panellists Marcel Bursztyn (University of Brasilia), Dena Fam (University of Technology Sydney), Christian Pohl (ETH Zürich), Esther Meyer (Leuphana University of Lüneburg) and Daniel Lang (Leuphana University of Lüneburg), together with a large international audience, offered valuable suggestions concerning these requirements.

Long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations

Long-term collaborations with businesses, non-governmental, governmental and community organizations are required, as such partners are usually not able and willing to just engage on a single-project basis. Moreover, it implies that we create our transdisciplinary education together with these extra-academic partners, who should consequently also have a say about our learning objectives, the structure of our programs and how we assess our students: these cannot remain untouched in such transdisciplinary environments.

Indeed, the implication of this requirement is that we give up some ownership of our education programs and the panellists agreed that many programs and faculty have difficulty with this. One often has to find or develop special niches, like professional masters programs, where experimenting with such innovative collaborations is allowed. Audience member Robin Reid (Colorado State University) told the astonished colleagues that she has successfully implemented a 50/50 rule: half of her educational, research and management team consists of practitioners and other colleagues from the field.

Teaching particular dispositions and competencies

Given such transdisciplinary, hybrid environments, students can start to learn the important dispositions and competencies necessary for navigating them. But these are difficult to practice within the confines of the academy. Although our academic education is still mainly focused upon dissemination of knowledge, the panelists agreed that engaging in transdisciplinary projects requires that we help students to develop themselves as agents and persons in a richer sense.

Together, we sketched what transdisciplinary researchers need to ‘embody’: persons who have the humility and curiosity to aim for a deep understanding of the needs and values of their project partners. In addition, they must wholeheartedly and patiently spend the extra time often needed to build trust and co-develop a process that allows all to contribute. Audience member Girma Kelboro (University of Bonn) shared his previous experience at an Ethiopian university, where students were willing to live for a while in local communities in order to share the lived experience necessary for discovering local needs. Obviously, even if our academic programs perhaps cannot require this from our students, both students and faculty may need to leave our academic comfort zones and expose ourselves to different expectations and practices.

Preparing students for intercultural endeavours

After discussing the need for transdisciplinary, hybrid environments and considering how students can mature as persons and agents in order to navigate those environments, our interactive panel discussion closed by reflecting upon the task of preparing our students for the intercultural endeavours implicated in this. As chair, I challenged the panel and audience to consider the implications of the fact that most research is produced by a small section of humanity, from ‘weird’ (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies. Should we expect those researchers to understand sufficiently the interests and needs of other societies and to interact and collaborate adequately with the latter to meet those interests and needs? A precondition for this, the discussants agreed, is to face the historical and geographical contingencies we embody and to critically reflect upon these.

Such reflections have to build upon a metacognitive reflection upon oneself as a knower, a learner, a collaborator: what are our assumptions, expectations, and weaknesses and how do these potentially interfere in the interpersonal and intercultural engagements involved in transdisciplinary projects? Even though it is a challenge to avoid our cultural biases when we are forming an initial ‘map of stakeholders and practices’, being open to shared discussion of such a map and its underlying prejudices may help to overcome them.


In sum, even though it appears paradoxical to prepare students for navigating transdisciplinary environments that are much more diverse and invested with dimensions that academic education seeks to avoid – values, interests, lived experience, and the like – all discussants agreed that we can do so if we open up our ‘ivory tower’ and develop hybrid environments and projects.

What are your experiences with this? Do you have similar confidence in our ability as academic educators to create transdisciplinary environments? Or do you believe that the suggestions above do not go far enough? Or perhaps, conversely, are you afraid that providing proper academic training is difficult in such less constrained environments?

Relevant articles by panel members:

Bursztyn, M. and Drummond, J. (2014). Sustainability science and the university: Pitfalls and bridges to interdisciplinarity. Environmental Education Research, 20, 3: 313-332.

Fam, D., Palmer, J. and Riedy, C. (Eds.). (2016). Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes. Taylor & Francis: New York, United States of America.

Fam, D., Smith, T. and Cordell, D. (2016). Being a transdisciplinary researcher: Skills and dispositions fostering competence in transdisciplinary research and practice. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer and C. Riedy (Eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes. Taylor & Francis: New York, United States of America. See also the blog post Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser? Online: https://i2insights.org/2017/03/14/transdisciplinary-skills/

Keestra, M. (2017a). Multi-Level Perspectives on Interdisciplinary Cognition and Team Collaboration: Challenges and Opportunities (Introduction to the special section: Interdisciplinary collaboration). Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, 35: 113-120.

Keestra, M. (2017b). Meta-cognition and Reflection by Interdisciplinary Experts: Insights from Cognitive Science and Philosophy. Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, 35: 121-169.

Lang, D., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., Swilling, M. and Thomas, C. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7, Supplement 1: 25-43.

Pearce, B., Adler, C., Senn, L., Krütli, P., Stauffacher, M. and Pohl, C. (in press). Making the link between transdisciplinary learning and transdisciplinary design principles. In, D. Fam, L. Neuhauser and P. Gibbs (Eds.), The Art of Collaborative Research and Collective Learning: Transdisciplinary research, practice and education. Springer: London, United Kingdom.

Biography: Machiel Keestra PhD is a tenured assistant professor of philosophy at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He teaches philosophy of science and interdisciplinary research in the Natural and Social Sciences bachelor and in the Brain and Cognitive Science master programs. He is a researcher at the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation, focusing on the philosophy of cognitive neuroscience. He is past-president of the international Association for Interdisciplinary Studies.

This blog post is based on a panel on teaching and learning in transdisciplinary environments entitled ‘Preparing the next generation for navigating between different environments’ at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017. For a video of the panel session (Thursday 14 September, 9.15-11.00) visit: http://www.leuphana.de/zentren/methodenzentrum/konferenzen-veranstaltungen/itd-conference-2017/live-streams-chats.html.

21 thoughts on “Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments”

  1. Hello Tilna,
    Thanks for your important post. You have raised a critical issue,
    I can add a note of optimism here. At the University of California, Berkeley (USA), we have a number of programs that have moved or are moving in a transdisciplinary direction. I am most familiar with such programs in the School of Public Health where nearly all student are exposed to issues of transdisciplinary theory, methods and practice.

    For example, is the masters program, students have courses that discuss the importance of working across disciplines and societal sectors to address complex problems. They engage directly in community-based projects where they interact with community stakeholders and “end users” of interventions. The students’ charge is to connect with these extra-academic groups and work closely with them to help understand problems and generate solutions that are likely to work in the specific setting. The curriculum emphasizes the importance of learning across disciplines and with stakeholders in societal sectors.

    The most “transdisciplinary” of our doctoral programs is the Doctor of Public Health program, which is “school-wide” (includes all the many disciplines the the school) as well as “campus-wide” (includes all disciplines on campus). The explicit goal of this program is “transdisciplinary.” Students are required to consider how to “solve problems in society” not just “test academic theories.” Students engage in not only coursework but also with community and policy work on real-world issues. Students’ dissertations are generally transdisciplinary (focused on an actual societal problem) and use mixed methods to do the research and generate interventions or recommendations for interventions.

    After graduation, these Doctor of Public Health students have many career options: either an academic position, or a more practice-focused position, such as a leader in a public health department, a government policymakers, a senior position in a community organization, a consultant, a job in philanthropy or some this else. Most typically, these graduates choose or create a “hybrid position” in which they can do teaching, research and practice. For example, I teach, do research work on many transdisciplinary projects. I head the Health Research for Action center at our school. Our center consists of researchers, community experts, policy experts, communication experts and others. We use highly participatory, transdisciplinary methods to work with groups outside the university to solve complex problems in US and global contexts. We also train many undergraduate and graduate students in our center, so our center is a “transdisciplinary lab” for training and action.

    There are other examples around the world of university programs and centers doing this kind of work. The I2S site is a good place to learn about them.

    You could become a pioneer in this area in your university setting. The only reason that Berkeley has gone in the transdisciplinary direction is that a critical mass of us took it on and persisted over the years to make it happen.

    Good luck!
    Linda Neuhauser
    Clinical Professor of Community Health Sciences
    School of Public Health
    University of California, Berkeley
    Health Research for Action Center

  2. I’m a newcomer to this forum and hope it is not seen to be intruding in on an interesting conversation. As human consciousness opens up more and more discovery and possibility, increasing complexity is being revealed to us. TD is an obvious example of attending to this emerging awareness. I’ve had difficulty trying to relate the title of this blog to its content … since contradiction, ambiguity and paradox are all parts of a whole, and it is the whole that I’m seeking to find in these conversations (not as an outcome, but as an approach).

    In this conversation public health has been mentioned a number of times, and it is to this discipline that I wish to make a couple of comments. Firstly, public health to most people immediately conjures up a medical (or medicalised) model whereby its educational grounding comes from a physical model of health (i.e. what keeps the ‘body’ healthy). TD needs to appreciate that the primary locus within this broad discipline of health (public health) is underpinned by this limited understanding of health. Secondly, the inclusion of only ’empathy’ in attending to relational aspects of public health (and TD researchers/practitioners), is also limited in that social, cultural and spiritual dimensions to health and well-being are always then subsidiary to ‘the body’ and ’emotional’ aspects in public health discourse. I’m aware that many other disciplines have also been mentioned in this blog … and this generates the ‘whole’ approach of which I refer to here. It’s just that public health seemed to be a more common focus in this forum. Ultimately, a Centre for TD research will still require its own governance and leadership structure and systems. I’m just concerned that a public health approach – grounded within a medical model – will again take the lead. What do others think? Which discipline/s would be best to drive this initiative?

    • Thanks for your relevant suggestion and question, Mary. Linda has already offered some valuable suggestions concerning how to educate students such that they are not applying a reductionist perspective on health issues, being trained only according to a (bio)medical model. Let me therefore reply more generally to your concern about how we perceive health issues. Although I assume that in general a strict reductionist model in medicine is being replaced with a broader ‘bio-psycho-social’ model, I appreciate your suggestion to more explicitly address cultural and spiritual dimensions into the experience of health and sickness. These dimensions might be integrated in the psychological or social dimensions and be understood in terms of coping with health and sickness, yet in so doing their scope and depth would probably be underestimated. With regard to empathy, I’m aware that in the Netherlands there has been a conversation about to what extent genuine empathy can be trained as ‘bedside manners’ or whether programs would have the right to dismiss a student if he/she just does not seem to have the capabilities for empathy. Indeed, medical programs are trying to avoid the paradox that I’ve mentioned by integrating relatively genuine interactions with patients during the student’s training. Yet as your comments suggests, it is still crucial to prepare medical students -like others- to remain aware of and open-minded for the possibility that this particular problem or patient’s condition is partly influenced by a determining factor that is not yet covered by our education and research – to be aware of a causal pluralism that is not sufficiently captured by our theoretical pluralism.
      (For an interesting brief text on the application of the biopsychosocial model in transdisciplinary research, see Piko, B. F. and M. S. Kopp (2008). Behavioural Sciences in the Health Field: Integrating Natural and Social Sciences. In: Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research. G. Hirsch Hadorn, H. Hoffmann-Riem, S. Biber-Klemm et al. (eds.), Dordrecht, Springer: 305-314.)

    • Thanks for your comments, Mary,
      Very important to point out that the traditional perspective that the bio-medical model is often presumed to be the foundation for thinking and action related to health, medicine and public health. However, as Machiel indicated public health is now more strong viewed as being grounded in bio-psycho-social models. In particular the social-ecological model has come into prominence over the past 20 years as a key foundation for public health. This model posits that people’s health influenced at many levels: individual, family, neighborhood/community, organizational, and societal/environmental. The “medical/body/treatment” aspect of health is thus just one aspect viewed within the larger ecology of health.

      This is the primary model used at our University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, for research, teaching and practice. Interestingly, our school has explicitly moved away from the “medical model.” We are one of the few schools of public health in the world that are not located within a medical school. We do have a medical program, but it is located as just one element of the school. All students in the medical program first focus on the broader notions of public health (most often using social-ecological models) and its large range of determinants. Later, they get a more specific focus on medical/body issues, but always within the broader context of public health.

      You had an important comment about empathy and whether a focus on empathy could overlook other important social, cultural and spiritual factors. In my view, a deep level of empathy should be a pathway for a researcher or practitioner to begin to learn about social, cultural and spiritual and other aspects of the situation being examined and addressed in TD work. One definition of empathy is “judgment-free attention”–a critical skill and mindset for TD work. Your comment can help push those doing TD work to more actively use judgment-free attention to explore the many factors of the situation that need to be uncovered.
      Thanks again for your comments.
      Linda Neuhauser

      • Thanks for responding to my rudimentary comments Linda! I really appreciated your thoughts and insights (and expertise!). I am really convinced that TD research is needed today more than ever …

  3. Hi Machiel and All,

    I am following these blogposts with interest! Great to have a place where colleagues from many countries can share ideas.

    Machiel, I have been thinking about your queries:

    “With regard to your last point, I wonder whether perhaps the European situation – in which government and scientific agencies are mainly responsible for funding academic projects, health care programs etc. – makes it more difficult to convince funders etc. to invest in these kind of centers: “Isn’t that the task of the government/insurance companies/hospitals?” seems to be a common reply.
    Have you perhaps noticed differences in national (educational) cultures with regard to 1) how students and faculty are invited to engage with people they usually don’t meet, and 2) with regard to getting support for the kinds of center you recommend establishing?”

    Yes, I have noticed big differences among countries in terms of how much academic and governments encourage students and faculty to work across disciplines and engage with people outside academia (in communities, government and private sectors). In many countries where government support for academia is very high, research grants are expected, and funding outside academia traditionally low, there is not as much motivation for students or faculty to move outside their disciplines and outside academia.

    In the US, where government support for public academic institutions is decreasing, and opportunities for outside funding is on the rise, there is a lot of encouragement and pressure for students and faculty to be entrepreneurial and transdisciplinarity is key to doing so. For example, at the University of California, Berkeley, the state government funds only about 11% of university expenses. The rest comes from students and outside funding. So, being entrepreneurial is essential to succeeding.

    This situation is quite different from what I’ve observed in Europe, Australia and Asia. On the downside, it is hard to be a doctoral student and be constantly looking for fellowships and other funding. Likewise, it is hard to be a faculty member without adequate long-term financial security to work in the disciplinary area for which you were hired.

    However, on the upside, it encourages/pressures both students and faculty to explore beyond their disciplines for opportunities to collaborate on campus and beyond campus. I have public health doctoral students who have found good support through joint work with faculty in engineering, informatics, city planning, business, etc. These experiences not only provide tangible financial support, but open up students’ worlds to other disciplines and outside sectors. As a faculty member and co-PI on such projects, it opens up my perspectives, too.

    Also, Berkeley (as part of “Silicon Valley”) has a strong emphasis on nurturing new transdisciplinary ideas through “incubators.” Students and faculty are increasingly comfortable going into “design spaces/labs” where they work together with students and faculty from other disciplines and people from outside the university on new ideas to solve problems. I’d characterize this as “going outside the comfort zone to the excitement zone.”

    You also asked about setting up a TD-type center, as I and my colleagues have done. It is not easy to do so and to fund it from sources outside academia (my center receives no university support), but we are finding increasing demand for this kind of work from government, community groups, and private organizations such as business. Although improving health care may traditionally be seen as the task of the healthcare organizations themselves and government, there is a growing recognition that healthcare organizations and government (such as public health departments) need to find new ideas to improve their processes and document those results.

    For example, our center is helping a local department of public health and local healthcare organizations experiment with ways to reduce emergency care for uncontrolled pediatric asthma and ways to find investment in that effort. Our center’s contribution is to have a vast transdisciplinary understanding of multiple factors impacting childhood asthma and multiple ways to address these problems. We help bring together environmental experts (who understand the impacts of poor air quality and in-home asthma triggers) with community experts (who understand how to educate parents) with physicians (who understand the best asthma treatments) and investment experts (who understand how to calculate the return on investment for an activity). Our center is also responsible for doing rigorous research to document outcomes. Together, we are hopeful that this transdisciplinary approach can reduce emergency care costs by half. Our funders understand the value (and necessity) of such work that breaks out of academic silos and out of academia.

    I note also that there is high demand world-wide for US businesses doing transdisciplinary work, such as IDEO.org. This means there are untapped opportunities in many countries to be entrepreneurial in TD work-even though it may not be the norm now.

    Linda Neuhauser
    University of California, Berkeley

  4. Dear Machiel, Dear colleagues who have contributed to this post,
    Thank you very much for this exchange!! Having analyzed inter- and transdisciplinary contexts in Latin America and a few in Europe, I suggest we need to take into account a comment made by a colleague from Venezuela at the International Transdisciplinarity (ITD) Conference about extension practices in Latin America.
    We really need to build a bridge between educational practices around extension (ie knowledge co-produced with stakeholders to improve their practice, eg improving farming practices) that have been developed in Latin America and those that we name as transdisciplinary in Europe. These practices have a common ground that, if adequately systematized, could serve as great input for Europe and Latin America, and beyond. From my perspective, this topic needs an urgent discussion among those performing TD and colleagues who are developing extension and outreach activities at Latin American universities. Similar complex problems are being approached from different frameworks and these efforts can be complemented!
    How can we learn from these practices and use them as a positive input in our teaching? What are the bridges already existing between Transdisciplinary Education and Extension activities?

    • Thanks for this thought on extension practices, Bianca. The ITD conference and the many conversations we had there convinced me as well that we need to present to each other the experiences made in different contexts as we can learn from and build on them. I’m intrigued by your remark that there is a common ground to the extension practices you’ve seen in Latin America and transdisciplinary projects in Europe: perhaps you can expand a bit on this? I recall indeed interesting practices and thoughts that were mentioned in the special section you’ve edited for the 2016 volume of Issues in Interdisicplinary Studies (accessible via [Moderator note: in October 2021, this link was found to be non-functional and was removed: (www[dot]oakland[dot]edu… ais… publications) – instead, try: https://interdisciplinarystudies.org/volume-34-2016/].

  5. Thoughts on “Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments”
    Linda Neuhauser
    University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health

    Greetings Machiel and I2S Community Members,

    Machiel, I appreciated your blog and hearing about the rich discussions at the TD conference in Leuphana. You all raised very good questions and proposed good strategies to prepare students for TD environments.

    I’ll share some of my experiences and suggestions from my 20 years of experimenting as a TD “co-learner/teacher, co-researcher, co-designer, and co-implementer.”

    o Prepare yourself: As discussed by the Leuphana panelists, being a good teacher-or better yet-co-learner, requires a high degree of curiosity, humility, openness and reflection about the vast diversity of people, cultures, environments and needs in the world. I agree with the comment from conference participant Girma Kelboro about the importance of having students live in a community to understand local needs, and it applies equally to teachers. It was this kind of experience that originally attracted me to participatory and TD work.

    My story: After graduating with a master’s degree in public health many years ago, I worked as a foreign aid health worker in Mauritania (West Africa). My academic education had not prepared me to understand or address complex health and other problems in this country in the Sahara Desert. My main job was daunting: to work with counterparts to develop an effective national vaccination program, an effort that had been tried and failed for 20 years(!)
    Although experts from the World Health Organization had written technically excellent program plans over the years, none of them had worked in real-world situations, no one knew why, and tens of thousands of children were dying from preventable diseases.

    Fortunately, my counterparts and I were willing to scrap the expert approach and begin a nationwide tour to learn about problems and suggestions from the ground up. At that time, we did not have TD guidance to draw from. Instead, we were motivated by desperation to embark on an intuitive journey that emerged from assembling an interdisciplinary team and meeting with stakeholders from many communities. In every nomadic camp and village we visited, we learned about local problems and suggestions for doing better. As we catalogued these ideas, we began to gradually develop a program and refine it as we discovered new problems and suggestions. Intriguingly, the solution to the seemingly intractable problem of keeping vaccines cold in the desert came from shepherds who knew about special chemical refrigerators that worked in the desert to store vaccines for camels. During 20 years of failures, no one had asked them! Our approach would now be called “TD” and it was successful: within 2 years we had an effective vaccination program covering 85% of the population.

    This experience of turning failure to success by working across disciplines and sectors prompted me to commit my career to exploring and implementing these approaches.

    o Helping students engage in others’ worlds: As you discussed at Leuphana, we can’t necessarily provide students with deep lived experiences in other environments. However, we can emphasize ways in which they can adopt roles and strategies that enable them to “co-learn” with others. I find it helpful to share TD frameworks and case examples (stories) that highlight the complexity of this work, the failures that happen when it is not followed, and the successes of using it. I think that students (and all of us) learn best by stories that reach us on a visceral, emotional level. Although the university approach is typically cognitive, as humans we don’t really engage with an issue until we have empathy with people and their problems.

    “Design thinking” approaches recognize the importance of starting with empathy (see ideo.org) The idea is that if you can’t reach a state of empathy with people that you are hoping to work with and help, you cannot move on to the second step of “defining problems.” Here’s an example: in a recent session of a seminar I lead about creating better public health programs, a colleague joined us and talked about the devastating effects of untreated childhood tooth decay globally. She showed us photos of children with nerves exposed from blackened nubs of teeth, something she has found in many countries. She talked about the debilitating pain these children experience that prevents them from sleeping, from eating, from learning at school and from growing. When we had all entered a state of alarm and compassion (from the Latin “compassio”: “I suffer with you”), she then turned the discussion to how she had used TD techniques to work with communities in 6 countries to figure out problems and come up with locally effective solutions. It turned out that using low-cost paint-on fluoride varnish can reduce cavities by 50% and that using sodium diamine fluoride drops (See this link: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/this-new-treatment-could-make-your-next-trip-to-the-dentist-more-bearable) can stop the infection (and pain) from tooth decay. When she finished the session, we all felt energized and empowered to work with others and adapt these strategies. Maybe you do, too? If so, the world is waiting…

    In my view, design thinking is a valuable addition to TD methods. It not only emphasizes beginning with empathy, but also going through rapid cycles of problem/solution identification and testing/refinement. In just an hour working with those most affected by a problem and many relevant stakeholders, a lot of progress can be made. Here’s an example: at a TD conference in ETH Zurich in 2016, I facilitated a session on using a design thinking approach to address the problem of overuse of an emergency department (in Los Angeles, USA) by children with chronic conditions (like asthma). In just one hour using a design thinking TD method, a highly interdisciplinary group of conference participants from chemistry, physics, geography, linguistics, gender studies, policy, etc. was able to develop effective strategies that had taken 6 months to do using more traditional methods in the local area. I find design thinking exercises very helpful in seminar settings, where students can use them in teams as they consider a health intervention issue (much can be done in just 30-40 minutes).

    o Find ways to create TD programs: As the Leuphana group commented, academic environments are often not conducive to TD leaning. One way to deal with this is to create TD-type programs, as the Leuphana participants described. Creating learning environments that value TD approaches is powerful and we have developed such programs at the University of California, Berkeley. Public Health is necessarily a highly interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary discipline-perhaps one of the most cross disciplinary of all academic environments. At our School of Public Health, we incorporate natural sciences (biology, medicine, physics, environmental science, etc.) and social sciences (sociology, anthropology, policy, business, etc.) as well as the humanities, to address complex issues. We also have a strong focus on partnering with community organizations and other non-academic stakeholders. This constellation of disciplines and partnerships is a powerful academic approach to deal with TD issues.

    At our School of Public Health, we already have an advantageous position. In general, we see a strong, growing orientation towards TD approaches. Our Doctor of Public Health program is explicitly focused on TD. Students are required to state how their dissertation research will advance solutions to a “problem,” rather than just focus on “testing a theory” as is typical in traditional PhD programs. Students get exposed to participatory techniques of working across disciplines and sectors. The “TD Challenge” is very intriguing to students who have not experienced it before. For example, I am working with a doctoral student who wants to know how community health workers can effect change. She has come from a traditional government perspective of engaging with these workers on one issue: asthma. Now she is considering how these workers might take on multiple issues: parenting education, oral health, mental health, jobs, etc.

    For more information about our UC Berkeley Doctor of Public Health program, a TD program in environmental sciences at ETH Zurich, and others, see the chapter by Christian Pohl and me (and other chapters) in: P.T. Gibbs (Ed.) (2014). A transdisciplinary study of higher education and professional identity. New York: Springer.

    o Find a problem to solve: Although academic environments are typically narrow, and it’s not easy to develop an official TD program, another way to provide students with TD experiences is to work with colleagues in other disciplines on a specific cross-disciplinary problem. Once students are challenged with a problem that spans more than one discipline or school, it becomes clear that an interdisciplinary/TD approach is the only way forward. An example: last year, I was approached by a professor in the School of Engineering. The Engineering faculty and students were trying to solve an important problem: high arsenic levels in water in schools. The Engineering professors and students had a very effective portable technology to remove arsenic locally from well water, but did not have expertise in exploring community perspectives or other skills areas more common in public health. Our schools now have a joint project that provides an excellent way for students to do TD work together.

    o Create a “center” that uses TD approaches. Over 20 years ago, I joined with colleagues to establish a new kind of center: the “Health Research for Action center” (http://healthresearchforaction.org). Our impetus was to bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers, community practitioners, and policy makers committed to using participatory methods to empower “end beneficiaries” and stakeholders to deal with important issues. Our group has been able to bridge academic disciplines, and “extra-academic actors” to move forward with important challenges. By working in this TD approach, we have been able to provide a “lab” to hundreds of students, academics and other stakeholders to work on important issues. We have used TD approaches to co-research, co-design and co-implement many effective programs. Examples include: statewide parenting education, the aforementioned global oral health projects, and a project working with factory workers in China (see reference below). All of these programs have been successful; none would have worked without using TD.

    I strongly recommend setting up such a “center” as an effective way to deal with the typical narrowness of academic structures. The TD center approach can be either a complement to, or an alternative to, an academic TD program. As we know, it’s not always possible to set up or sustain TD academic programs. Another value of TD centers is that they raise funds to do TD activities. TD academic programs focus primarily on teaching and may not have adequate funding to support students and faculty to work on substantial projects. Our center raises millions of (US) dollars per year to do such work. Funders who want to “get something done” usually don’t turn first to support an academic program, even if it is TD, but they do find value in supporting a non-profit university center like ours that has the added bonus of including teaching activities and students.

    o Look for other examples and ideas to engage students with TD environments. The I2S and other TD blogs are a good way to share information about this topic. There are a number of books that are rich sources of information. The aforementioned book on TD in higher education spans theory, teaching techniques and academic TD case examples.

    I am co-editing (with Dena Fam and Paul Gibbs) a book to be published by June 2018: D. Fam, L. Neuhauser and P. Gibbs. (Eds.) Collaborative Research and Collective Learning: Transdisciplinary research and practice. Springer Press.

    The book has three sections: theoretical foundations of TD work; TD pedagogic methods in higher education; and case studies of TD efforts from science, policy and the arts. Many I2S colleagues have contributed to this book (including a terrific commentary from Machiel!). Once the book is published, we will provide more information about it on the I2S site.


    Neuhauser, L., Pohl, C. Integrating Transdisciplinary and Translational Concepts and Methods into Graduate Education. In: P.T. Gibbs (Ed.) (2014). A transdisciplinary study of higher education and professional identity. New York: Springer.

    Neuhauser L., Wang, X., Hong, Y., Sun, X., Zong, Z., Shu, X., Mao, J., Lee E.W., Aibe, S. (in press). Collaborative research and action: The China Worker Wellness Project. In: D. Fam, L. Neuhauser and P. Gibbs. (Eds.) Collaborative Research and Collective Learning: Transdisciplinary research and practice. Springer Press.

    Neuhauser, L. (2013). Integration and Implementation Sciences: How it relates to scientific thinking and public health strategies. In Bammer, G. Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems (pp. 461-472). Canberra Australia: Australian National University Press. Available at: http://epress.anu.edu.au/titles/disciplining-interdisciplinarity/pdf-download

    Bio: Linda Neuhauser, DrPH, MPH is (officially) Clinical Professor of Community Health Sciences at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. In reality, she is a co-learner who uses TD techniques to engage with groups around the world and address complex problems. She also heads the Health Research for Action center at UC Berkeley, a place from which she, her colleagues and many partners globally do TD work.

    • These are great thoughts and stories, Linda: many thanks! As your contribution ranges from emphasizing the need for empathy in order to motivate, convince and familiarize oneself with the lived experience & problems of others, to the benefits of establishing a center that employs TD methods to tackle societal problems while raising money from funders and investors, it almost presents a manual for TD research. I limit myself here to commenting on two of your thoughts.
      I completely agree with your emphasis on empathy as an important foundation for learning and engaging, which makes it even more sad that our academic programs hardly facilitate nor invite students to leave their comfort zones and to engage with people from other walks of life etc.
      With regard to your last point, I wonder whether perhaps the European situation – in which government and scientific agencies are mainly responsible for funding academic projects, health care programs etc. – makes it more difficult to convince funders etc. to invest in these kind of centers: “Isn’t that the task of the government/insurance companies/hospitals?” seems to be a common reply.
      Have you perhaps noticed differences in national (educational) cultures with regard to 1) how students and faculty are invited to engage with people they usually don’t meet, and 2) with regard to getting support for the kinds of center you recommend establishing?

  6. In an interesting blog post on co-producing transformative knowledge (https://steps-centre.org/blog/how-do-we-co-produce-transformative-knowledge/) the authors (Andy Stirling, Adrian Ely and Fiona Marshall) argue that co-production is “slow knowledge” ie “There is a need and responsibility to resist the pressures of modern academia and policy making: quick fixes, neat solutions, disciplined schedules, short attention spans, branded processes, and the appropriation of credit for the outcomes of research. Co-production in the necessary deep sense is not just about one-off projects, exercises or tools. It is about the long-run forming of high-quality relationships spanning different social divides. History matters.”

    This fits nicely with your notion of long-term collaborations.

  7. Thank-you for your analysis Machiel. I have commented elsewhere in this “transdisciplinary” blog and agree entirely on the value of learning skills in (a) collaboration and (b) engagement – outside the conventional bounds of one’s particular specialist discipline.

    Beyond this some caution is needed in the area of “particular competencies”. My view is that while related-discipline learning will not be wasted, if unduly weighted it can overload students and dilute the effort that they can then put into learning their chosen specialism. Accordingly as a practitioner, and later consultant/advisor, I have generally advocated that related disciplines at the least should be sufficiently appreciated to be “prized”.

    It is many years ago that I lectured in the subject of “electronic circuits”. At the time I also taught some aspects of “surveying” where electronic systems were then being introduced. Similarly, the role in engineering technology of related fields such as economics, law, project management is critical for the technology to be of any use. Even if not studied in depth, such fields should be understood by the student to he extent that they will be “prized” – I have called this “integrative engineering”.

    The same approach is needed in all other specialist fields; e.g. medicine, architecture, business management, government policy etc.

    • Thank you for your cautionary remarks, Graeme. They underline the balance that must be found in preparing a T-shaped expert/academic: equipped with adequate disciplinary depth, while at the same time sufficiently prepared (with collaborative, metacognitive and reflective competencies i.a.) and adequately knowledgeable about relevant other disciplines to collaborate. Only then can such an expert sufficiently appreciate & prize other disciplines, as a starter for subsequently aiming to develop an integrated perspective. The key term here is ‘relevance’: instead of being completely familiar with neighbouring disciplines, it can be sufficient to know their relevant subdomains – which at the same time implies that there is a risk of overlooking a potentially relevant niche. Which is why disciplinary expertise remains a key element of inter- and transdisciplinary projects, although not all collaborators need to have identical knowledge bases. Does this concur with your interesting concept of ‘integrative engineering’?

  8. Thank you very much for the paper and the discussion ! I come from Venezuela teaching at a Pedagogical University. For me this “TRANSDICIPLINARITY ” approach is related to Action Research. I have had experience with my students projects in this field. Particularly I myself worked researching my own praxis and practice with my pre graduate students as collaborators.The whole process taught me a lot specially in relation to communication, humility and awareness on different humans being. Would you mention Action Research as a way to research Transdisciplinarity ?

    • Thanks for this interesting reference to Action Research. Transdisciplinary research and Action research share in that they have a genuine interest in involving stakeholders with their experiential knowledge and their values & interests in research projects. Yet, as was emphasized in Danilo Streck’s contribution to this Int’l Transdisciplinarity Conference at Leuphana Uni in the session that Gabriele Bammer chaired, Action research has a more explicit aim of developing ‘actionable knowledge’ and a more explicit democratizing impetus. In that sense it is perhaps more explicitly aiming to be relevant to extra-academic stakeholders and probably relies even more on the attitudes that you’re referring to – although inter- and transdisciplinary research do require researchers to be sufficiently communicative, humble and self-aware (again: metacognition is also crucial) in order to adequately collaborate with others. Indeed, this is why bringing different expert communities involved in inter- and transdisciplinary research together is so relevant as we can learn from each other methodologically and theoretically.
      (Streck’s talk on Action research can be seen at ca. 12 min. in video 5 of the conference series https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLvna7tMNVD9v0yBx8xcVVyd-JXDWvRGQc – the panel discussed in this blog is video 6, starting at 9 min.).

  9. Thanks for your insights and comments! Let me respond briefly to the two issues mentioned here.
    1) There is indeed still an emphasis in many programs on teaching and learning for the next generation of university colleagues, even though ca. 5% of our students will remain within the university and 95% ending up in a much more diverse -diverse in many senses- environment than the university. Moreover, even of those 5%, many will collaborate in inter/transdisciplinary teams – from physics experts working with engineers in experimental settings to medical researchers working with patient groups. So it is important for most programs to learn students to reflect upon their disciplinary work and connect it to other perspectives. That brings me to:
    2) Functioning in the hybrid, transdisciplinary environments mentioned above does indeed require students (and faculty) to be able to communicate adequately with others. However, such communication requires also a minimum of reflection on the epistemological or methodological assumptions, practical norms and expectations etc. inherent in their position. Indeed, both at the individual and team level, it is very valuable to engage in meta-cognition as a precondition for such communication to occur. Hopefully, such team metacognition can also help to mitigate the influence of the ‘agressive language’ in the team….

    • Thanks again, these are great points and I couldn’t agree more. Everybody is coming from somewhere and it helps if we can be more aware of the “epistemological or methodological assumptions, practical norms and expectations” that come from our training and work/cultural backgrounds. An awareness of this principle helps to us to stand in the other person’s shoes, and it allows us to see that approaches that yield fruits in one complex setting may not yield fruits in another. Even when we are not working in a team, this perspective seems important for critical thinking. Could this concept point to a specific near-term change in our existing intra-disciplinary training programs? For example, should we better emphasize the underlying assumptions of our own methods when we teach them and when we use them? This might make us better prepared to compare and contrast approaches and generate hybrid methods when we talk across disciplines. Maybe this is a pipe dream for the more traditional disciplinary silos, but the people in this forum seem to be doing this very well and maybe it could become more widespread. Thank you very much for the insights and the helpful references.

      • Great additional remark, Tim. Becoming aware of and articulating underlying epistemological, methodological and theoretical assumptions is indeed a crucial step in doing inter/transdisciplinary research. However, as you’re suggesting, since intra/monodisciplinary research is increasingly facing a pluralism of methods, theories etc. it is getting more integrated in such monodisciplinary education as well. However, to prepare for collaborating across disciplines or integrating contributions from multiple perspectives we should offer our students experience with methods that facilitate this border-crossing, like dialogue methods, systems thinking, modelling, and so on. This is much less common in most training programs, unfortunately. You can check out training/educational resources on websites of the organizations involved in this conference like:
        [Moderator note: added https://interdisciplinarystudies.org/ as in October 2021, the following link was broken: oakland[dot]edu… ais… resources… scholarship], http://i2s.anu.edu.au/ , of the http://toolbox-project.org/, http://www.transdisciplinarity.ch/td-net/Methoden.html, [Moderator update – In November 2022, this link no longer available: teamsciencetoolkit[dot]cancer[dot]gov/Public/Home.aspx].

        • Thanks Machiel, these are great links, and important concepts that can improve our collective capacities. In public health, I have been excited to see people emphasize the value of holistic systems thinking. However, even in this inherently broad field, there is insufficient discussion about the evidence, practices, and theories that can help us learn how to nurture it. Thanks again for the helpful links and reading.

  10. Thank you for the great post and the great comment. If we can create more hybrid spaces and find ways to support cross-disciplinary/collaborative dissertations then we will have made great progress.

    At the risk of sounding too “meta”, I wonder if one initial approach to these goals lies in simply nurturing the type of communication that is being modeled here. How much will we have to change the core aspects of our disciplinary training, if we can create forums where this type of communication is valued and demonstrated to trainees? I imagine that the content of our disciplinary training will still need to be improved, but this should be easier to accomplish if we can first improve our communication norms. In some working environments, there can be a strange social reward or unspoken respect conferred to those who use aggressive language. This is usually not productive and I think that this milieu can encourage people to disengage when the conversation veers into areas that are more peripheral to their core training/way-of-knowing. Of course, sometimes we do have to raise important issues in a clear manner. However, if we can model communication that acknowledges the non-omniscient nature of our own methods and constructs, then perhaps we can make more progress. This focus on communication norms may sound a tad simplistic, but I think it fits into the category of “preparing the soil” for future growth. Thoughts? Thanks again for this great conversation.

  11. Thank you for this post. It addresses a critical issue that needs more consideration within the context of 21st century education, specifically graduate studies. Graduate programs, particularly in social sciences and humanities, remain rooted in the practice of grooming students for life in academia. As a result, many graduate students have no idea how to apply their skills outside the university research environment. Having more opportunities to engage in projects and collaborations outside the university would provide students with a wider range of skills and insight into jobs beyond the “ivory towers”, as you say. Those who do remain within academia will benefit from understanding how research can be put into practice and also how to create connections with outside knowledge users to ensure the uptake of research. Economies and education systems in general are shifting toward more transdisciplinary thinking; therefore, it doesn’t make sense for graduate programs to remain confined within traditional boundaries. There can still be rigorous research training, but with a broader understanding of its application across different contexts, and also being open to discussions about other forms of knowledge and research across cultures. We might even start to rethink traditional models of graduate research, such as allowing more collaborative PhD dissertations that cross disciplinary lines instead of the dominant solitary approach, which tends to be very isolating.


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