Transdisciplinarity: Systems thinking in the classroom

Wednesday 11:30am-1:30pm UMC Aspen Rooms
Poster Presentation Part of Teaching about Systems


Tim Lutz, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
For two and a half centuries humans have developed advanced systems to create ever-increasing economic and social progress. But the interaction of these systems with other earth systems have brought many basic resources (e.g., biocapacity, soil, fresh water) into overshoot, threatening the basis for progress and even existence. To bring the planet to the brink in this time required vast knowledge of earth, and well-educated, highly skilled geoscientists provided it. Better education of this kind is not what we need; aiming to develop our students' higher order geoscientific skills and making them competitive in the workforce is not sufficient. If we are serious about sustaining the human endeavor then we must help create for ourselves and our students a transformative sense of awareness and responsibility for the whole earth system. If not us, then who?

Transdisciplinarity prioritizes holism and recognizes the behavior of complex, dynamic systems – like earth – as sources of the patterns and metaphors from which sustainability might emerge. Transdisciplinary teaching embodies the character of complex systems by embracing qualities such as interconnectedness and recursion; it probes the validity of boundaries. This poster explains how I've begun to ground three of my courses, including two 300-level courses for geoscience majors, in a transdisciplinary framework. For example, in an environmental geology course, the textbook concept of earth as a system is made more encompassing by using the framework of cybernetics, the study of how complex systems organize themselves, communicate among their subsystems, and control themselves. In this framework, the geologists are parts of the system. In an introductory course, topics are not covered as discrete content but are discovered in an ongoing recursive cycle. A main purpose of this presentation is to engage and encourage faculty who may be apprehensive of stepping away from traditional teaching methods and roles.