Assessing Student Transdisciplinary Thinking about Sustainability through Wicked Problems

Monday 3:00pm Tate 101


Ellen Iverson, Carleton College
Ashley Carlson, Carleton College
Kristin O'Connell, Carleton College
David Szymanski, Bentley University
Otgontsetseg Erhemjamts, Bentley University
Melissa Lenczewski, Northern Illinois University
Christine Mooney, Northern Illinois University
Rick Oches, Bentley University
John Ritter, Wittenberg University
Rachel Wilson, Wittenberg University
Mitchell Bender-Awalt, Carleton College

To address the wicked problems of sustainability in a global economy, students need instruction that drives them to use systems thinking and integrate ideas from across multiple disciplines. The NSF-funded Business and Science: Integrated Curriculum for Sustainability (BASICS) project developed two "common exercises" that incorporate systems and transdisciplinary thinking, piloted in primarily undergraduate courses at three institutions in a variety of disciplines. One exercise focuses on the challenge of downstream pollution in the Mississippi River watershed and the second on the implications of a linear versus a circular economy by examining a product's lifecycle. We present preliminary findings of assessment data from two academic years of student attitudes and abilities to address complex problems.

Data are drawn from student surveys administered before and after the common exercise implementation. In the pre- and post-surveys, students were asked to report on their perceived importance of sustainability and rate their knowledge of systems concepts maps. Preliminary findings show significant increases in students' perceived knowledge of systems concepts maps. In addition, students responded to questions related to the common exercises, one addressing nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River watershed (both academic years) and the second addressing challenges with plastic waste (2021-2022 year). Students were asked to indicate how important it would be to draw expertise from each of 22 different disciplines to address the given problem. Preliminary findings reveal significant increases in students' perceived importance of seeking expertise from humanities, business, and social science fields, an indicator of increasing transdisciplinary thinking. Finally, students were asked to indicate their reported learning gains (1=none to 5=very large) using items from the Research on the Integrated Science Curriculum (RISC) survey (Lopatto, 2018). Preliminary findings show that students enrolled in courses implementing the BASICS curriculum exceed those of the national comparison group in most categories.