Propagating an integral and transdisciplinary approach to sustainability education

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Byrne, Edmond P.
Mullally, Gerard
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Recent directions in engineering for sustainable development (EESD) (and in ESD more generally) have pointed towards an increasing realisation that in order to adequately begin to address respective meta-problems associated with global (un)sustainability, ‘object world’ disciplinary perspectives alone are insufficient. Instead, the required depth of knowledge that expert disciplinary knowledge can provide must be both complimented and built upon by other disciplinary as well as experiential knowledge. Integral and transdisciplinary approaches to learning can play a central role in helping achieve this. When such approaches are applied, they facilitate the possibility of new and emergent knowledge and insights which can transcend disciplinary bounds, with the potential to reach places where no single disciplinary approach can; a classic case of ‘whole greater than the sum of parts’. This however requires a degree of disciplinary humility and openness to other approaches and disciplinary norms, as well as a degree of trust, patience and time. Nevertheless, in the context of seeking authentic sustainability, it is necessary. The classical engineering degree structure is not amenable to this approach. Engineering has traditionally seen itself as a ‘problem solving profession only insofar as ‘problems’, including complex socio-technological ones (with ecological and economic import) can be neatly reduced to well-defined closed system decontextualized ‘puzzles’ which can then be algorithmically optimised. This is deeply problematic as it cannot map reality; specifically, complex contemporary 21st century reality, instead resulting in emergent ‘unintended consequences’. A key intervention point therefore in the development of a fit-for-purpose cohort of engineering graduates capable of addressing emergent twenty first century meta-problems is through their formative education. Here integral and transdisciplinary approaches to sustainability education/ESD offer a useful approach. But this requires not just the inclusion of ‘sustainable development material’, but a perpendicular reconceptualization of pedagogical approaches. This approach coheres with contemporary pedagogical best practice as it privileges relational and constructivist approaches to learning over the traditional atomistic approach, incorporating as it does, peer to peer and personal reflective learning opportunities. This paper reflects on the experiences of a programme where undergraduate chemical engineering students undertaking a sustainability module collaborate with students on an analogous sociology module. It describes how this transdisciplinary collaboration takes an integral approach to sustainability learning, incorporating both subjective and objective perspectives as well as inter-subjective and inter-objective. The work reflects on how this initiative worked by drawing on student feedback and the authors’ experiences.
Engineering for sustainable development , Learning , Sustainability module , Transdisciplinary collaboration , Emergent knowledge , Chemical engineering students , Sociology , Engineering , ESD
Byrne, E.P. and Mullally, G. (2016) Propagating an Integral and Transdisciplinary Approach to Sustainability Education, EESD 2016 8th International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development, Bruges, Belgium, 4-7 September.
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© 2016, The Authors; Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Conference