Introducing Transdisciplinary Problem Solving to Environmental Management Systems and Geology Students through a Case Study of Disturbed Coastal Systems

By Walsh, Maud M.; Wicks, Carol | Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2014 | Go to article overview

Introducing Transdisciplinary Problem Solving to Environmental Management Systems and Geology Students through a Case Study of Disturbed Coastal Systems


Walsh, Maud M., Wicks, Carol, Journal of College Science Teaching


Researchers, educators, employers, and policy makers have stressed the need for educational practices that prepare students to solve problems through critical thinking and collaborative multidisciplinary teamwork (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; Clark et al., 2011a, 2011b; Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990). Employers are seeking graduates who can work as members of a diverse team. Problem-based and case-study learning are promising strategies for developing these needed skills (Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001; National Research Council, 2011). Environmental problems, which present scientific, social, and technical challenges, may be addressed most effectively by a transdisciplinary approach (Scholz, Meieg, & Oswald, 2000). Transdisciplinary problem solving encompasses the space among disciplines, so it differs from multidisciplinary approaches, which maintain disciplinary boundaries, and interdisciplinary strategies, which blend approaches from different disciplines (Scholz, Lang, Wiek, Walter, & Stauffacher, 2006). Transdisciplinary scientific training is aimed at producing scientists who can synthesize and apply theory and technique from various disciplines to address a problem (Nash, 2008). It commonly incorporates feedback from stakeholders and results in practical actions (Baumgartner, Becker, Frank, Muller, & Quaas, 2008).

Transdisciplinary course

Context--Louisiana's disappearing coastline

Globally, coastal land loss poses a major challenge as large population centers are increasingly threatened by sea level rise (Nicholls, 2011). The disappearance of coastal wetlands over the past several decades has posed numerous problems including damage to commercial and recreational fisheries, diminished protection from hurricanes, and increased vulnerability of infrastructure of the energy industry (Couvillion et al., 2011; National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011; National Research Council, 2006). Louisiana's coastline is particularly vulnerable (see http ://www.nwrc.usgs. gov/upload/landloss8X11.pdf). Addressing the problem of loss of up to 40 acres per year of coastal wetlands in Louisiana provides a unique opportunity for problem-based and case-study transdisciplinary learning.

The analysis of the multiple factors contributing to coastal land loss and the evaluation of methods for reducing the loss and mitigating its effects require expertise of many disciplines and a perspective that is outside any one of those disciplines. To provide students with experience in working in transdisciplinary teams tasked with addressing a complex problem, classes in environmental management, geology, and landscape architecture were linked to focus on an integrative approach to wetlands restoration in Coastal Louisiana. This article discusses the transdisciplinary class from the perspectives of the two science classes, Applied Environmental Management and Seminar in Geophysics: Hydrology of Coastal Ecosystem Restoration.

Development of the course

The idea for a combined case-study class originated from discussions between the authors about collaborative class projects that could involve environmental management and geology students. Because one of us had a successful experience in a learning community of English composition, landscape drawing, environmental engineering, and environmental management classes focused on lake restoration (Walsh, Jenkins, Powell, & Rusch, 2005), we felt that bringing in a nonscience discipline might be valuable. We were encouraged to submit a proposal for financial and logistical support for the class from the Louisiana State University Coastal Sustainability Studio and were subsequently introduced to a professor in landscape architecture who was interested in working with us. We three faculty members submitted a proposal requesting travel support for class field trips and a stipend for a graduate assistant; we received only enough money for a graduate assistant, a landscape architecture graduate student. …

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