Transforming Campus Transdisciplinary Instructional Practices to Address Sustainability Education

Ellen Iverson
Director of Science Education Resource Center (SERC)
Carleton College

Addressing wicked problems such as energy demand, climate change, and water scarcity require knowledge and practices that transcend disciplinary boundaries. The education of a future scientific and technologically literate citizenry demands instruction that integrates across STEM, liberal arts, and business. The Business and Science: Integrated Curriculum for Sustainability (BASICS) project brings together multidisciplinary cohorts of faculty from three institutions to create curricula that introduce undergraduate students to the transdisciplinary nature of sustainability. The project uses Local Learning Communities (LLCs) at each institution as a means of engaging faculty in a 2-year curriculum development cycle. This approach builds a campus community of practice as faculty improve their instructional practices related to students’ transdisciplinary and systems thinking. The cohorts have developed and piloted two “common exercises” along with disciplinary exercises specific to their diverse set of disciplinary courses, including courses in biology, geology, environmental science, psychology, public health, anthropology, sociology, engineering, entrepreneurship, management, finance, marketing, accounting, and economics. The first cohort developed an exercise focused on the challenge of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River watershed. The second cohort developed an exercise on the implications of a linear versus a circular economy by investigating a product’s lifecycle. The project seeks to understand changes in student learning and perceptions associated with the BASICS curricula in these courses. Assessment data is collected from the course pilots through student pre- and post-surveys and student work. Additionally, external evaluators examined the perceived motivations, benefits, and challenges faculty attributed to the project as well as expected changes in teaching practices through interviews with cohort members. The LLC approach across multiple cohorts has allowed broader campus adoption of the transdisciplinary curricula and instructional practices. Cross-institution LLCs have allowed faculty learning from different faculty cultures, student populations, and institutional structures. Faculty report that the project affords them opportunities to collaborate with colleagues within and across disciplines and institutions. They state that their involvement in BASICS challenges them to work across disciplinary practices. Moreover, data drawn from student surveys administered before and after the common exercise implementation reveal significant increases in students’ perceived importance of seeking expertise from humanities, business, and social science fields, an indicator of increased transdisciplinary thinking. Additionally, students report learning gains using items from the Research on the Integrated Science Curriculum (RISC) survey (Lopatto, 2018), exceeding for most categories those of a national comparison group.


David Szymanski, Bentley University, Waltham, MA; Otgontsetseg Erhemjamts, Bentley University, Waltham, MA; Melissa Lenczewski, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL; Christine Mooney, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL; Rick Oches, Bentley University, Waltham, MA; John Ritter, Wittenberg University, Springfield, OH; Rachel Wilson, Wittenberg University, Springfield, OH; Mitchell Bender-Awalt, Carleton College, Northfield, MN; Jana Bouwman-Gearhart, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR; Caitlin Kepple, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR; Cindy Lenhart, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR; Danielle Solar, Bentley University, Waltham, MA; Kristin O’Connell, Carleton College, Northfield, MN; Ashley Carlson, Carleton College, Northfield, MN