Guidelines to improve engineering education for sustainability through transdisciplinarity learning processes

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Tejedor, Gemma
Segalas, Jordi
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University College Cork
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Actions for sustainability are promoted from the different areas of environment, society, technology and economy, with the common aspiration to face interconnected crises in a world that can no longer be conceived as “society without nature and nature without society”. From this imperative for the integration of epistemics, university is called to restructuring boundaries and processes to properly serve society. Given that engineering principles are aligned with that logic, it is argued that engineering education (EE) have to evolve to being engineering-problem oriented and further developed into socio-technically oriented. Transdisciplinarity emerged in this context pursuing integration of academic and practical or traditional knowledge outside the academia, to co-produce outcomes both socially robust and transferable, that is, useful for transitioning and scientifically innovative to formulate new guiding principles. In order to improve engineering education in sustainability (EESD) through transdisciplinary learning approaches, we performed a three phases research. Firstly, we analysed how sustainability was approached in EE, through a co-word analysis and characterization of the keywords’ networks of three relevant journals in the EESD field. The journal networks evolution analysis suggested that social concern in engineering is growing. The keywords characterisation showed relevant categories being related to transdisciplinary education strategies for applying sustainability and to cross-boundary schemes. Finally, a modularity analysis showed that keywords related to transdisciplinarity spread throughout all the areas of knowledge addressed by the journals, indicating a widening interest. The second phase studied how emergent EESD initiatives were approached from transdisciplinarity discourses. Most of them fitted in the problem-solving discourse, where co-production of knowledge and method-driven aspects are also relevant. Deepening this discourse, most initiatives corresponded to the real- world argument promoting science-society collaboration in societal problems (EU contexts); others looked for convergence of sciences in pursuit of human well-being (innovation argument, US contexts); and some initiatives brought together students and entities in a team-based learning process with social purpose (transcendent interdisciplinary research-TIR argument). None of the initiatives fitted the transgression discourse, attempting to reformulate the establishment, no longer for society but with society. The last phase consisted in the implementation of a transdisciplinary learning environment experience in a 5 ETCS course of the UPC Master degree in Sustainability Science and Technology. Civil organisations, students and educators undertook collaborative research on real-life sustainability case studies, following two cycles of action-reflection. While the course mainly fitted in the real-world argument of problem solving, service learning and CampusLab schemes also reproduced team-based learning with societal purpose (TIR argument). The transgression discourse was addressed through service learning focusing on social justice. Some students engaged further as professional researchers-activists. Additionally, a well- valued Emotional Intelligence module was developed to help students face some process paralyzing uncertainties. From the lessons learned, we proposed a set of fundamental features to be considered for an effective scheme for a transdisciplinary approach in EESD, methodically framing the science-society discourse on the issue at stake: work in real-world complex problems; involve diverse disciplines and fields cooperation; involve science-society cooperation and mutual learning processes; integrate types of knowledge; rely on disciplinary and cross-disciplinary practices.
Engineering education , Sustainability , EESD , Transdisciplinary learning
Tejedor, G. and Segalas, J. (2021) ‘Guidelines to improve engineering education for sustainability through transdisciplinarity learning processes’, EESD2021: Proceedings of the 10th Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Conference, 'Building Flourishing Communities', University College Cork, Ireland, 14-16 June.