Service as Means of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Maureen Muldoon, Geology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Most of my interdisciplinary teaching on sustainability topics takes place outside the context of traditional classroom courses. Budget constraints at large public universities often preclude the option of co-teaching courses and so while I integrate sustainability concepts in to my discipline-specific courses, it is outside the classroom that I am more able to collaborate with other faculty and staff on the teaching of sustainability. Specifically this collaboration consists of event planning, faculty development programs and curricular reform.

Our campus holds two week-long sustainability events each year: the Earth Charter Community Summit in the Fall semester and Earth Week each Spring semester. The Earth Charter Summit, is more "educational" event and focuses on the four principles of the Earth Charter: 1) respect and care for the community of life, 2) ecological integrity, 3) social and economic justice, and 4) nonviolence, democracy and peace. The week features a banquet with a keynote speaker, panels, films, and brown bag seminars. Earth Week is scheduled to overlap with Earth Day and is meant to be more "hands on". There are less formal presentations and more activities such as tree and prairie plantings, river clean up, 'art from trash" projects, etc. Serving on the planning committees for both of these events for the past 5 or 6 years has broadened my view of sustainability and required me to reach out to colleagues from many academic departments as well as to non-academic staff in order to develop interesting and engaging programs each year.

Our Campus Sustainability Plan, written five years ago, addresses all of the traditional infrastructure/facilities goals but it also includes goals for the academic aspects of the university. Our "Winnebago project" is a two-day faculty college that is meant to provide training on the topic of sustainability as well as an opportunity for faculty to re-design a course to incorporate sustainability concepts. One of the more successful portions of the workshop is a lunch-time panel wherein four faculty from diverse disciplines talk about a local issue that can be examined through a "sustainability lens" and each provides their discipline-specific perspective. I have participated on panels for a variety of topics including a proposed "factory farm", the historic contamination and current cleanup of the Fox River which runs through campus and the topic of sustainable food systems. I feel that the panel approach, where each member teaches from their knowledge area but the topics are chosen to encompass a broad range of perspectives is an effective method of interdisciplinary teaching of sustainability concepts for the purpose of faculty development.

We have just completed a major revision of the general education program at UW-Oshkosh and one of the three signature questions that will be addressed across the general education curriculum is "how do people understand and create a more sustainable world?". As we start to implement this new curriculum there is a huge need for faculty development on the topic of sustainability as well as a need for effective teaching resources. The Winnebago project will serve as our model for future faculty development programs and several faculty have been meeting informally to "pool" our teaching resources and to develop a rubric to assess students' understanding of sustainability concepts. While implementing our new general education program presents many challenges, the incorporation of sustainability concepts as an "essential learning outcome" is a big success and one that is built on interdisciplinary cooperation among a core group of faculty who have collaborated outside the normal classroom setting.

Downloadable version of this essay

Service as Means of Interdisciplinary Collaboration (Microsoft Word 32kB Jun26 12)
UW Oshkosh University Studies Program booklet (Acrobat (PDF) 1.2MB Jun26 12)