Teaching transdisciplinarity for sustainable development

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By integrating systems and design thinking methodologies in the curriculum and through a reflected group collaboration working format, environmental science students develop their capacity for framing complex, real world problems. They also develop effective measures to address challenges within environmental systems.

Environmental science students are well trained in analytical skills and in understanding complex socio-ecological systems. They are less trained in developing and implementing measures to make systems more sustainable. 2016, as results of a review of the BSc environmental sciences, two older courses were fused to address this challenge. The new mandatory 10 ECTS course “Tackling environmental problems” runs throughout the first BSc year.
The lecturers of the course, the teaching expert of the D-USYS and LET jointly undertook an Innovedum project to develop new teaching and learning elements in order to achieve three goals:
a) Students are able to frame a complex sustainability problem as a set of specific challenges from diverse stakeholder perspectives, by following a methodology of integrated systems and design thinking. They are able to develop and prototype measures to address these challenges.
b) Students develop the capacity to collaborate in a group, based on a recognition of the group roles that they take on, and a reflected assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
c) Tutors are able to lead students through a fun, open-ended and self-organised learning process to help students handle moments of discovery, as well as moments of uncertainty and frustration.
The Innovedum project gave us the resources to develop, prototype and test the new teaching and learning elements in the first run of the course (2016/17). The testing also showed which elements do not yet work as expected. We will improve and further test these elements in the coming years.

The main outcomes and our lessons learned are:
Integrated systems and design thinking: Our course helps students not only to critically identify the challenges of a real world environmental system, but also to use their insights to develop creative measures. The stakeholders from private and public sectors reacted very positive to the solutions the students presented to challenges in the gravel system. As a consequence, students requested a new course to obtain credits for continuing to implement these measures in practice.
Reflected group collaboration: We have paired a survey based approach to build groups with fostering students› own capacity for reflection. This paired use of both quantitative and qualitative methods helps students to identify the specific role in which each group member can contribute most to the group’s task.
Tutoring as coaching: Twelve tutors, previous students of the course, were coached to support students in situations of confusion, uncertainty and frustration. The tutors learn how to listen and give advice with empathy and help effectively without knowing the «right» answer.
Lastly, we think we have arrived at a way of developing both cognitive and affective skills in students. In addition to developing the intellectual knowledge base of the students› understanding and analysis of systems, we also develop students› capacity for tackling complex and uncertain situations. They learn to listen. They learn to communicate. They learn to become aware of what other perspectives exist in the world and how to engage collaboratively with and integrate these differences.