By Irina Dallo, Jan Freihardt and Juanita von Rothkirch
What is an effective way of providing students with practical experience in stakeholder engagement? How can students learn to communicate and engage with community members on a transdisciplinary project, as well as how to create a space for those community members to reflect on their daily lives through interactions and discussions with the student outsiders? What makes it possible for students to broaden their horizons and to acquire new competences and skills?
We present our reflections on how the Winter School 2020 “Science meets Practice” run by ETH Zürich successfully contributed to our transdisciplinary learning process. We suggest there are six key lessons for those who want to design a successful course.
Lesson 1: A diverse and motivated group
A key element in fostering the transdisciplinary learning process was the diversity of the participant cohort. Not only were we from a variety of different disciplines and at different career stages, but we were also from different countries with different cultures. This variety enabled us to reflect about and approach the transdisciplinary process from different angles.
How can someone from Australia with a background in traditional Chinese medicine relate to transdisciplinarity? And how is this different for someone working on risk communication relating to geothermal power plants in Chile? Having participants from different backgrounds also stimulated reflection on the influence of elements that might seem obvious for Swiss participants, such as direct democratic processes in the community, that are not present in other countries.
This diversity resulted in stimulating discussions not only during the workshops, but also, and maybe more importantly, during coffee and lunch breaks.
Lesson 2: A safe environment to explore stakeholder interactions
The winter school provided an environment in which we could safely explore how interactions between researchers and community members might develop. For instance, we found it surprising and eye-opening to learn how important informal interactions are for building trust.
Many descriptions of transdisciplinary tools and research methods put a lot of emphasis on the methods themselves and on how to apply them. Little is usually said about the fundamental importance of trust for the method to work. Without trust, most methods are doomed to fail – both in the transdisciplinary realm, but likewise for ‘conventional’ methods like interviews or focus group discussions.
We benefited from the longstanding relationship between the facilitators of the winter school and the communities we interacted with. Over the years, a solid basis of trust had been established.
Lesson 3: Link theory and practice
We learnt about the theoretical background of transdisciplinary methods (perspective of an expert), experienced the methods ourselves (perspective of a participant) and learnt how to choose an appropriate transdisciplinary method (perspective of a practitioner).
First, we benefited from theoretical inputs by scientific experts and experienced practitioners followed by interactions with council members of Wislikofen (the site of the winter school) and the surrounding communities.
We then applied a transdisciplinary method. For example, we drew a rich picture of the current status of the community in order to understand the challenges they are dealing with.
Towards the end of the winter school, we organized a workshop for the residents to address the problem statements we had identified. We thereby learnt which transdisciplinary methods fit a certain context and addressed the issues we were interested in.
Lesson 4: Reflection exercises
The learning process was reinforced by a ritual of reflection. Throughout the day, we recorded our personal insights in a notebook, namely the ‘aha’ moments we experienced. Before going to bed, we reviewed our notes, reflected on them, and wrote an entry in a virtual journal, which was read by our facilitators.
The next morning, we sat in a circle with our colleagues and shared some of the previous day’s insights, putting together the lessons we acquired through lectures, interactions with the community and group work.
The different formats for reflection (private, semi-private and public) helped us reiterate and slowly digest the daily highlights. Allocating time in the schedule for individual reflection provided the space to focus on particular topics of interest, thus adjusting the learning process to our own needs. At the same time, listening to the experiences of others helped us appreciate the events from different perspectives and broaden the spectrum of topics covered.
Lesson 5: Flexible facilitation
We highlight three key factors for good facilitation:
- not only the facilitators’ professional expertise, but also their soft skills allowed each participant – independently of his/her background – to get input for his/her research.
- we had structured engagement spaces as well as informal opportunities (eg., meals, evening drinks) to further discuss personally relevant issues.
- each year a different group of students attends the winter school and thus the facilitators need skills in adapting flexibly to new group dynamics.
Lesson 6: Transdisciplinary attitude
We were taught to recognize local stakeholders as the experts of their place. This is unlike the attitude that prevails in much of the science community, where researchers are seen as experts who fill the knowledge gaps of lay people.
The humble approach of the facilitators to the community was a good example of how to live a transdisciplinary attitude. We usually saw them listening rather than talking, and community members were more often on stage than the facilitators. The facilitators promoted informal spaces for interaction with community members, enabling casual exchange.
A prerequisite for our mindset shift was our ability to leave the comfort zone of academic environments. Exposing ourselves to the community interactions, often across language barriers, was challenging. Yet it was the way to learn that creating bridges with society requires a modest, tolerant and curious attitude.
From the perspective of a learner, instructor or practitioner, what is your experience with transdisciplinary learning processes and what factors do you think make them a success?
To find out more:
Dallo, I., Freihardt, J., Remke, S., von Rothkirch, J. and Ruizpalacios, B. (2020). Winter School 2020 – The next step is the mental transition to the new municipality of Zurzach. Information brochure resulting from the Winter School 2020, USYSTdLab, Zürich, Switzerland. Available online. https://ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/usys/tdlab/docs/education/winter%20school%202016/2020/ws-2020-brochure-en.pdf (PDF 5.3MB).
Biography: Irina Dallo is a doctoral student at the Swiss Seismological Service and the Transdisciplinarity Lab at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. The focus of her PhD is how to best communicate earthquake information in a multi-hazard context. Her approach is user-centred and iterative, ie., involving close collaboration with the authorities and the public.
Biography: Jan Freihardt is a doctoral student in the group of International Political Economy and Environmental Politics at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, studying environmental migration in Bangladesh. In addition, he is working on a co-authored book aimed at introducing students and early-career researchers to the discourse around transformative science and transdisciplinarity.
Biography: Juanita von Rothkirch is a masters student in environmental sciences at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. She is interested in building bridges between policy makers and society. She has recently developed her research at the Transdisciplinarity Lab on siting issues of carbon capture and storage technologies.