Institutionalising interdisciplinarity: Lessons from Latin America / Institucionalizar la interdisciplina: Lecciones desde América Latina

Community member post by Bianca Vienni Baptista, Federico Vasen and Juan Carlos Villa Soto

A Spanish version of this post is available

What lessons and challenges about institutionalising interdisciplinarity can be systematized from experiences in Latin American universities?

We analyzed three organizational structures in three different countries to find common challenges and lessons learned that transcend national contexts and the particularities of individual universities. The three case studies are located in:

  • Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina. The Argentinian center (1986 – 2003) was created in a top-down manner without participation of the academic community, and its relative novelty in organizational terms was also a cause of its instability and later closure.
  • Universidad de la República in Uruguay. The Uruguayan case, started in 2008, shows an innovative experience in organizational terms based on a highly interactive and participatory process.
  • Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The Mexican initiative, which began in 1986, shows a center with a network structure in organizational terms where the focus was redefined over time.

All three centers showed an evolutionary path in which they simultaneously tried to adapt to the characteristics of the production of interdisciplinary knowledge and to the culture of the host institutions. Flexibility in this evolution seems to be a necessary condition for survival.

We found the following common lessons:

  • There is a bias in disciplinary-based academic assessment criteria, which does not consider the specific characteristics of interdisciplinary research and still punishes researchers who engage in collaborative research with partners outside academia. Specific criteria and assessment committees designed by interdisciplinary researchers are needed.
  • Interdisciplinary research requires long periods of preparation, mainly due to the collaborative dynamics, which also makes it necessary to revise assessment criteria.
  • Assessment committees should be made up of academic professionals specialized in interdisciplinary topics rather than a group of individuals representing different disciplines.
  • There is a need to explore new funding sources, especially external funds. So far, the main source of funding is still each national state.
  • There is also an urgency to promote academic publication to enhance the dissemination of interdisciplinary research and studies.
Bianca Vienni Baptista (biography)

Federico Vasen (biography)

Juan Carlos Villa Soto (biography)

Our comparative analysis pointed out the following common challenges:

  • Training experts in evaluation of interdisciplinary research.
  • Creating a critical mass of researchers in interdisciplinary topics to consolidate research agendas.
  • Integrating teaching, research, outreach and knowledge transfer rather than developing centers that are focused on a specific topic (eg., climate change and sustainability).
  • Developing an institutional strategy for interdisciplinary structures focused on directing knowledge production toward the resolution of complex problems.
  • The importance of participation in international networks to achieve a greater legitimation of these centers at the university level and to increase their visibility.

We suggest that the promotion of an interdisciplinary culture in the two remaining centers should involve:

  • The creation of permanent teaching and research positions to allow the consolidation of courses centered on problems rather than disciplines or specializations.
  • The development of Ph.D. programs providing specific interdisciplinary training, such as the ones already developed at the Universidad de Valparaíso (Chile) or Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro (Mexico).
  • The consolidation of a flexible organizational structure open to modification in line with global trends in conceptual innovations in interdisciplinarity.
  • Integration of interdisciplinary centers into the university structure and culture through all university functions. The aim is to create an academic critical mass on par with other countries and to train experts to assess interdisciplinary projects and design academic policies to tackle complex problems.

Our analysis supports the current diversity in institutionalization processes and does not propose a single desirable model for interdisciplinarity institutionalization.

What do you think? Do you have institutionalisation lessons to share?

To find out more:
Vienni Baptista, B., Vasen, F. and Villa Soto, J.C. (2018). Interdisciplinary centers in Latin American universities: The challenges of institutionalization. Higher Education Policy: 1-23. Online (DOI): 10.1057/s41307-018-0092-x

Biography: Bianca Vienni Baptista is a postdoctoral researcher at the Methodology Center at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany. She was an Associate Professor at the Academic Department at Espacio Interdisciplinario, Universidad de la República, Uruguay. Her main research interests concern science, technology and and higher education policy, and inter- and trans-disciplinary knowledge production and institutions.

Biography: Federico Vasen is a researcher at the National Research Council CONICET (Argentina) and Academic Coordinator of the MSc Program in Science and Technology Policy and Management at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His main interests include science, technology and higher education policy, especially academic evaluation.

Biography: Juan Carlos Villa Soto is academic technician of the Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Ciencias y Humanidades at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico). He has coordinated the Professional Diploma in Interdisciplinary Research and has been the editor in chief of the journal INTERdisciplina. His research interests comprise the theory and practice of interdisciplinarity and the research policy.

 


 

Institucionalizar la interdisciplina: Lecciones desde América Latina / Institutionalising interdisciplinarity: Lessons from Latin America

An English version of this post is available

¿Qué lecciones y desafíos se pueden sistematizar sobre la institucionalización de la interdisciplina a partir de las experiencias en las universidades latinoamericanas?

Analizamos tres estructuras organizativas en tres países diferentes para encontrar los desafíos comunes y las lecciones aprendidas que trascienden los contextos nacionales y las particularidades de las universidades particulares. Los tres estudios de caso analizados fueron:

  • La Universidad de Buenos Aires en Argentina: El Centro de Estudios Avanzados (1986-2003) se creó sin la participación de la comunidad académica y su relativa novedad en términos organizativos fue también la causa de su inestabilidad y posterior cierre.
  • La Universidad de la República en Uruguay: El caso uruguayo, iniciado en 2008, muestra una experiencia innovadora en términos organizacionales basada en un proceso altamente interactivo y participativo.
  • La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: La iniciativa mexicana, que comenzó en 1986, muestra un centro con una estructura de red en términos organizacionales donde el enfoque fue redefinido a lo largo del tiempo.

Los tres centros mostraron un camino de trabajo en el que simultáneamente trataron de adaptarse a las características de la producción de conocimiento interdisciplinario y a la cultura de las instituciones donde se desarrollaron. La flexibilidad en esta evolución parece ser una condición necesaria para su supervivencia como centros interdisciplinarios.

A partir de nuestro análisis, encontramos las siguientes lecciones comunes:

  • Existe un sesgo en los criterios de evaluación académica basados en la disciplina que no tienen en cuenta las características específicas de la investigación interdisciplinaria y suele desestimar el esfuerzo realizado por los investigadores que participan en estudios colaborativos con socios externos a la academia. Ello constata la necesidad de contar con criterios específicos y comités de evaluación diseñados por investigadores interdisciplinarios.
  • La investigación interdisciplinaria requiere largos períodos de preparación, principalmente debido a la dinámica colaborativa, lo que también hace necesario revisar los criterios de financiación y de evaluación de estas iniciativas.
  • Los comités de evaluación deben estar formados por profesionales académicos especializados en temas interdisciplinarios en lugar de un grupo de personas que representan diferentes disciplinas.
  • Existe la necesidad de explorar nuevas fuentes de financiamiento, especialmente fondos externos. Hasta ahora, la principal fuente de financiamiento en los casos analizados sigue siendo cada estado nacional.
  • Resulta urgente promover publicaciones académicas para mejorar la difusión de las investigaciones y los estudios interdisciplinarios.

Nuestro análisis comparativo señaló los siguientes desafíos comunes:

  • La capacitación de expertos en evaluación de la investigación interdisciplinaria.
  • La creación de una masa crítica de investigadores en temas interdisciplinarios para consolidar las agendas de investigación.
  • El fortalecimiento de procesos de integración entre la enseñanza, la investigación, la extensión y las actividades en el medio que acompañen simultáneamente la creación de centros dedicados a un tema específico (por ejemplo, cambio climático y sustentabilidad).
  • El desarrollo de una estrategia institucional para potenciar las estructuras interdisciplinarias centradas en orientar la producción de conocimiento hacia la resolución de problemas complejos.
  • La participación en redes internacionales para lograr una mayor legitimación de estos centros a nivel universitario y para aumentar su visibilidad.

Sugerimos que la promoción de una cultura interdisciplinaria en los centros con características similares a los que fueron los casos de estudio de esta investigación, debe incluir:

  • La creación de puestos permanentes de docencia e investigación para permitir la consolidación de cursos y proyectos centrados en problemas en lugar de disciplinas o especializaciones.
  • El desarrollo de programas de posgrado que brinden capacitación interdisciplinaria específica, como los que ya se desarrollan en la Universidad de Valparaíso (Chile) o en la Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro (México).
  • La consolidación de una estructura organizacional flexible y abierta a modificaciones en línea con las tendencias globales en innovaciones conceptuales en interdisciplina.
  • La integración de centros interdisciplinarios en la estructura y cultura universitarias a través de todas las funciones universitarias. El objetivo es crear una masa crítica académica a la par con otros países, formar a expertos para evaluar proyectos interdisciplinarios y diseñar políticas académicas para abordar problemas complejos.

Nuestro análisis apoya la diversidad actual en los procesos de institucionalización y no propone un único modelo deseable para la institucionalización de la interdisciplina.

¿Qué piensas? ¿Tienes lecciones sobre procesos de institucionalización para compartir?

Para saber más:
Vienni Baptista, B., Vasen, F. and Villa Soto, J.C. (2018). Interdisciplinary centers in Latin American universities: The challenges of institutionalization. Higher Education Policy: 1-23. Online (DOI): 10.1057/s41307-018-0092-x

Linking learning and research through transdisciplinary competences

Community member post by BinBin Pearce

BinBin Pearce (biography)

What are the objectives of transdisciplinary learning? What are the key competences and how do they relate to both educational goals and transdisciplinary research goals? At Transdisciplinarity Lab (TdLab), our group answered these questions by observing and reflecting upon the six courses at Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD levels that we design and teach in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

Six competence fields describe what we hope students can do with the help of our courses. A competence field contains a set of interconnected learning objectives for students. We use these competence fields as the basis for curriculum design. The competence fields were identified by reflecting on actual skills needed to conduct a transdisciplinary research process and by identifying elements from courses that have proven to be meaningful for students personally.

These competence fields are:

  1. Communicating values – Students are able to identify, ground and communicate assumptions and normative values in topics related to the concept of sustainable development.
  2. Reflecting about self and others – Students are reflective about their own perceptions and biases with regards to sustainable development.
  3. Applying concepts in the real-world – Students are able to appropriately apply conceptual knowledge to specific contexts, and, in parallel, exercise practical skills (such as project organization and time management) to deliver the required end products.
  4. Framing complex problems with others – Given a real-world topic and its accompanying conflicts and uncertainties, students are able to identify and frame clear, relevant problems with those who have contrasting perspectives or opinions.
  5. Researching in and with the real-world – Students are able to translate real-world problems into viable research questions. They are also able to identify the adequate research method(s) to investigate these questions and to co-produce knowledge with society.
  6. Imagining solutions and their consequences – Students are able to explore and develop solutions for real-world problems, while being aware of the possibility of unintended consequences of these solutions and taking responsibility for these consequences.

In making the link between transdisciplinary learning and research, we overlaid these competence fields with a pedagogical taxonomy and a transdisciplinary research framework to understand how these competences might contribute to the development of the student and to a transdisciplinary research process.

The pedagogical model is the classic Bloom’s Taxonomy (1986), which classifies learning objectives according to three domains: the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor or sensory domains. The cognitive learning domain encompasses reasoning and analytical skills. The affective learning domain describes the skills to be aware of self and others in terms of attitudes, emotions and feelings. The psychomotor domain focuses on physical, mechanical and sensory skills.

The transdisciplinary research framework is a sequence of design principles for the three phases of a transdisciplinary research process, as defined by Lang and colleagues (2012), sketched out in the table below. We matched a transdisciplinary competence field to the design principle(s) that would benefit from the application of the competence. In addition, we also matched Bloom’s taxonomy learning domains to each transdisciplinary design principle. The table below reveals the connection between the three schemes.

Transdisciplinary competence fields matched with the transdisciplinary research framework and Bloom’s taxonomy (source: Pearce et al., 2018)

The implications of these connections can be summarized as follows:

  • Both transdisciplinary research and transdisciplinary learning require the development of not only cognitive skills, but also affective and psychomotor skills, which include inter- and intra-personal skills, including the ability to communicate, to reflect, and to perceive the feeling and position of others. With the need to access skills in different learning domains, transdisciplinary research and learning are activities that develop the entire capacity of human learning, rather than focusing only on cognitive skills.
  • The transdisciplinary competences cover the span of skills needed for conducting an effective transdisciplinary research process. The list of competences listed here could serve as a reasonable foundation for a transdisciplinary education.
  • Skills needed to carry out a transdisciplinary research process straddle different learning domains. This suggests, for example, that cognitive skills could be developed alongside affective skills, rather than each being developed in isolation.

We hope that this framework may serve as a starting point for the design of other courses aimed at training future transdisciplinarians. As this work is in the beginning stages, we would also love to explore some of these concepts further with you. We look forward to hearing your experiences and comments.

To find out more about this framework and our teaching concepts:
Pearce, B., Adler, C., Senn, L., Krütli, P., Stauffacher, M. and Pohl, C. (2018, fothcoming). Making the link between transdisciplinary learning and research. In, D. Fam, L. Neuhauser, P. Gibbs (eds), Transdisciplinary theory, practice and education: The art of collaborative research and collective learning. Springer: Basel, Switzerland. Online: https://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319937427

References:
Bloom, B. S. (ed.) (1986). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. 2nd ed., Longman: New York: United States of America.

Lang, D. J., 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, S1: 25–43. Online (DOI): 10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x

Biography: BinBin Pearce PhD is a lecturer, curriculum developer, and post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Her focus is on developing tools and methods that foster students’ ability to perceive and resolve complexity in the real world with clarity and creativity, by integrating design thinking and systems thinking methodologies. She is a part of the teaching team for a yearlong course for first-year Bachelor students, “Umweltproblemlösen” (Environmental Problem Solving) and for a Masters-level course called “Transdisciplinary Case Study”. She is also the coordinator and coach for the Transdisciplinarity Lab Winter School “Science meets Practice”, a week-long training program which aims to foster skills for PhD students from all disciplines to see how perspectives in research could be interpreted for societal needs.

Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity

Community member post by Edgar Cardenas

Edgar Cardenas (biography)

How can undergraduate and graduate students be helped to build their interdisciplinary collaboration capacity? In particular, how do they build capacity between the arts and other disciplines?

In 2018, I co-facilitated the annual, 3-day Emerging Creatives Student Summit, an event for approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students from 26 universities organized by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities. Students’ majors ranged from the sciences, engineering, music, arts, and design.

The aim of the summit is to give students an opportunity to collaborate on projects that incorporate creativity and the arts. Continue reading

The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory

Community member post by Dena Fam, Abby Mellick Lopes, Alexandra Crosby and Katie Ross

How can transdisciplinary educators help students reflexively understand their position in the field of research? Often this means giving students the opportunity to go beyond being observers of social reality to experience themselves as potential agents of change.

To enable this opportunity, we developed a model for a ‘Transdisciplinary Living Lab’ (Fam et al., forthcoming). This builds on the concept of a collaborative test bed of innovative approaches to a problem or situation occurring in a ‘living’ social environment where end-users are involved. For us, the social environment is the university campus. We involved two universities in developing this model – the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University. We aimed to help students explore food waste management systems on campus and to consider where the interventions they designed were situated within global concerns, planetary boundaries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Transdisciplinary Living Lab was designed and delivered in three largely distinct, yet iterative phases, scaling from individual experiences to a global problem context. These phases of the living lab, which work to integrate personal and professional knowledge and practice, are also shown in the figure below:

1. Entering the living lab was the phase where students were introduced to collaborative teamwork processes, expectations of joint problem formulation and critical reflection on their own position within the system being explored: ‘digging where they stand’. This meant helping students consider their relationships with the food waste system as consumers of food and producers of waste, as well as their potential impact as designers of interventions in that system.

2. Transdisciplinary learning was the second phase where students were introduced to the concept of research as a process of system intervention, as well as skills for co-producing and integrating knowledge in collaboration with diverse partners in the food system. For the Transdisciplinary Living Lab at the University of Technology Sydney this meant listening to, questioning and collaborating with relevant stakeholders in the system to investigate historical and current approaches to the issue, and exploring precedents for dealing with food waste in other parts of the world. Central to this phase was ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the students as it was produced. This meant organising a publically accessible class blog that can be viewed at https://wealthfromwaste.wordpress.com/ and weekly debriefs and discussions on insights gained.

Dena Fam (biography)

Abby Mellick Lopes (biography)

Alexandra Crosby (biography)

Katie Ross (biography)

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Foundations of a translational health sciences doctoral program

Community member post by Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano and Paige L. McDonald

gaetano-lotrecchiano
Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano (biography)

How can doctoral studies be developed to include innovation in practice and research, as well as systems and complexity thinking, along with transdisciplinarity? This blog post is based on our work introducing a PhD in Translational Health Sciences at George Washington University in the USA.

Innovation in Practice and Research

We suggest that innovation in practice and research is achieved by the integration of knowledge in three key foundational disciplines:

  • translational research
  • collaboration sciences
  • implementation science (Lotrecchiano et al., 2016).

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Doing a transdisciplinary PhD? Four tips to convince the examiners about your data

Community member post by Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Jenny Kent

How can research writing best be crafted to present transdisciplinarity? How can doctoral candidates effectively communicate to examiners a clear understanding of ‘data’, what it is and how the thesis uses it convincingly?

The authors have all recently completed transdisciplinary doctorates in the field of sustainable futures and use this experience to highlight the challenges of crafting a convincing piece of research writing that also makes claims of transdisciplinarity (Palmer et al., 2018). We propose four strategies for working with data convincingly when undertaking transdisciplinary doctoral research.

1. Make the data visible and argue for the unique or special way in which the data will be used

Some of the comments received from our examiners reflected a sense of being provided with insufficient data, or that it was not convincing as data.

It is important that the nature of data for the purposes of the research is clearly defined, and presented in a way that demonstrates its value in the research process. Richer contextualization of the data can help to make clear its value. This can include drawing attention to the remoteness of the field location, the rare access gained to the participants, and/or the unusual or special qualities of the data that make an original contribution to knowledge.

In these and other cases, it may be important to explain how a particular kind of data can valuably inform an argument qualitatively without reference to minimum quantitative thresholds. This is particularly relevant where a transdisciplinary doctoral candidate is crossing between physical/natural science, humanities and social science disciplines.

2. Be creative and explore the possibilities enabled by a broad interpretation of ‘data’

The advantage conferred on the candidate in taking a transdisciplinary approach needs to be made evident to the examiners, especially where there may appear to have been an absorption of the ‘data’ in the wider synthesizing narratives that are typical of transdisciplinary writing.

Adopting more creative writing techniques may help the examiner both to see the data, and to see the research as valuable. Transdisciplinary doctoral candidates may, given the complex feat of communication this requires, find it useful to seek training in creative writing or science communication skills.

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Jane Palmer (biography)

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dena-fam_feb-2018
Dena Fam (biography)

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tanzi-smith
Tanzi Smith (biography)

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jenny-kent
Jenny Kent (biography)

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