Common Structures for Interdisciplinary Programs

This page was informed by discussions at the 2012 Programs that Bring Together Geoscience and Sustainability workshop. Participants in that workshop contributed program descriptions and essays describing how their programs managed this interdisciplinary challenge. Because sustainability is multifaceted and can be embedded in a program using a variety of approaches, there is no single formula for designing a sustainability program. However, the discussions at and contributions to the workshop showcased some emerging models of program structures.
Understanding issues related to environmental problem-solving and sustainability requires background in natural systems and social systems as well as an understanding of approaches for integrating information from diverse sources. The nature of sustainability science requires that academic programs engaging with sustainability be inherently interdisciplinary (NCSE, 2012) . There are diverse approaches for building an interdisciplinary program, but there are some common challenges programs face and themes in how programs have addressed these challenges. Examining the program descriptions and essay submitted by participants at the 2012 workshop illuminates some program structures that constitute common responses to the challenges of creating a successful interdisciplinary program focused on sustainability.

Jump Down To: Elective Pallet | Strong Backbone | Start from Scratch | Experiential Learning

Elective Pallet

Students take sustainability courses taught in departments across campus and degree programs build cross-department and cross-school partnerships. As part of a campus-wide community, faculty and students with intersecting interests and passions engage in sustainability issues both in and out of the classroom. Collaborative opportunities for faculty are rewarded, and multi-disciplinary team teaching efforts facilitate learning and research synergy.

Example Programs

Strong Backbone

In this model, core courses taken by all participating students provide the overarching structure for the program. Consistency in the backbone is important for maintaining program integrity over time. These courses are taught 'in-load' by faculty who are committed to the program. Programs that are created entirely from existing courses with no in-load core courses face mission drift and persistence challenges over time. Team teaching the core courses can provide benefits to the program such as increasing breadth of the courses, faculty synergy, and redundancy leading to flexibility in teaching assignments.

Example Programs

Start from Scratch

Some schools have chosen to build completely new programs to facilitate the interdisciplinary learning they envision. This can mean using the strong backbone and elective pallet designs in a novel combination. In other cases it means designing all new courses that are each interdisciplinary in the sense that all relevant subject matter is interwoven with the main course material. For example, including biophysical science, technology, economics, and policy topics as they relate to impacts on energy cycles into a single course. The goal of this design is for students to address environmental sustainability using a more holistic approach.

Example Programs

Experiential Learning

Sustainability programs lend themselves well to problem-based and experiential learning teaching approaches, service learning, and internships. These active pedagogies are known to support learning and development of higher-order thinking skills. They are broadly advocated for in undergraduate STEM education. Programs teaching sustainability in this way model for implementation of a progressive pedagogy at their university. Additionally, enhancing students connection to place, is a necessary step to fostering a populace that will support conservation of ecosystems and greater appreciation of local culture, management and policy challenges

Example Programs

Common Structure: Common Challenges

The example programs highlighted above all include ways of synthesizing material from across a range of disciplines necessary for understanding sustainability science. An interdisciplinary structure, especially if it crosses traditional departments or programs, may challenge the administrative traditions of many institutions. Administering an integrated program can lead to challenges related to coordinating across units, allocating credit for team-teaching, and creating an intellectual and physical home on campus for participating students. Successfully addressing these challenges is necessary for bringing together the critical components of a sustainability program. It can also be a mechanism for strengthening an institutions ability to support learning across a wider variety of areas. Supporting cross-disciplinary learning and preparing students to approach problems from a variety of viewpoints, is recognized as an important goal for liberal studies in higher education broadly. Sustainability can be a catalyst and test case for this.

There is relatively little guidance available on best practices for how to design a successful sustainability program. The National Council for Science and the Environment conducted a survey in 2012 of the common elements of curriculum design in U.S. sustainability programs. The report shows that there is wide agreement on the importance of natural and social science emphases and approaches to problem-solving for programs at the undergraduate level. But ultimately, each new sustainability program is hand-crafted to capitalize on the strengths of their institutions and the opportunities of their location while serving the needs of their students and communities.