Transdisciplinary Collaboration: An Introduction

In this issue, we explore the concept of transdisciplinary teaching as a means of promoting inquiry, generating interest among students and as a means of reaching across traditional disciplinary boundaries to explore problems from new perspectives. Adam Kuban, who is serving as associate editor for this issue, has written the introductory piece on transdisciplinary collaboration to provide a foundation for the articles that follow. In these, you will find an assortment of practical classroom examples, ideas, and resources to promote a transdisciplinary perspective in the classroom and transdisciplinary collaboration among faculty and students. — Cindy Shellito, Editor in Chief

ADAM KUBAN ( is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

To make project-based learning more powerful, my colleague in Geological Sciences, Lee Florea, and I created and implemented a program where project-based learning is anchored in a concrete, real-life context. This program, Water Quality Indiana (WQI), requires transdisciplinary collaboration, where students from diverse academic majors utilize the knowledge and skills associated with their respective fields and apply them in a novel setting (Satterfield et al., 2009; Wagner, Baum & Newbill, 2014). This type of collaboration has existed for decades among certain disciplines, such as health and social sciences (Rosenfield, 1992; Mitchell, 2005). However, technological advances and the demands of industry present educators with new opportunities and challenges that may be addressed through a transdisciplinary approach (Versick & Troger, 2014).

"Transdisciplinary" is often used interchangeably with "multidisciplinary" or "interdisciplinary," but these words, all describing magnitudes of collaboration, are slightly different from each other. In short, "multidisciplinary" refers to the case where people from disparate disciplines work together to achieve a goal, but individuals usually work separately, drawing upon their specific knowledge and skill sets. More integration and synthesis occurs in an "interdisciplinary" Transdisciplinary Collaboration: An Introduction setting, whereas "transdisciplinary" collaboration can involve "multiple non-academic participants (e.g., land managers, user groups, the general public) in a manner that combines interdisciplinary with participatory approaches" (Stock & Burton, 2011, p. 1098).

Each pedagogical and/or research collaboration poses its own problems and parameters, so it is noteworthy that these terms are not sequential or hierarchical. In other words, a "multidisciplinary" effort is not meant to be considered as lesser than, or as a stepping stone to, an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary endeavor. All involved should be aware of the objectives and goals of the collaboration, which will determine the most appropriate type of partnership.

In fact, transdisciplinary collaboration poses certain challenges. To that end, this introduction offers a non-discipline-specific conceptual framework for successful transdisciplinary collaborations. Table 1 outlines the workplace conditions and qualities or attitudes that promote transdisciplinary collaboration, as well as examples of common goals that have enhanced the collaborative, transdisciplinary experience that we created in the WQI program, which could serve as a model for any transdisciplinary partnership.

WQI is a program committed to river restoration and conservation initiatives that engages high school seniors and undergraduates from private and public universities. This inter-institutional partnership involves community partners in developing a virtual space for student-contributed water quality data and scholarship shared through learning modules and multimedia. Through this project, my collaborators and I have found that success results from the three faceted framework outlined in Table 1. Two of the elements of this framework can be controlled: personality qualities or favorable attitudes toward transdisciplinary engagement and the common goals developed by the involved parties. The third element, workplace conditions, is largely out of the collaborators' control but still impacts the partnership. When all three facets overlap, successful collaboration can occur. In the event that one facet is absent or lacking, collaboration can still function but may be difficult to sustain.

Before embarking on a transdisciplinary effort, it's worth considering your own thoughts and perceptions about a transdisciplinary collaboration, the type of projects that might be best in a transdisciplinary framework, and challenges you may face in developing this type of collaboration (Table 2).

Any form of collaboration involves risk and reward. You have to trust others: faculty colleagues, community partners, and students. You also must embrace your own vulnerability. You may not be the expert at all times! But it's beneficial for students to see us exercise interpersonal and problem solving skills, as the same will be expected of them as they enter into an interdisciplinary, global workplace. Collaboration can ultimately lead to more professional-development opportunities. In my experience, WQI has led to successful internal and external grant pursuits, 17 conferences (with 11 students presenting), and peer-reviewed and edited publications. We hope the examples illustrated and advice offered throughout this issue inspires and motivates you to consider collaboration at your respective institutions.


Mitchell, P., 2005, What's in a name? Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary: Journal of Professional Nursing v. 21(6), p. 332-334.

Rosenfield, P., 1992, The potential of trans-disciplinary research for sustaining and extending linkages between the health and social sciences: Social Science & Medicine, v. 35, p. 1343-1357.

Satterfield, J., Spring, B., Brownson, R., Mullen, E., Newhouse, R., Walker, B., and Whitlock, E., 2009, Toward a trans-disciplinary model of evidencebased practice: Milbank Quarterly, v. 87(2), p. 368-390.

Stock, P., and Burton, R., 2011, Defining terms for integrated (multi-inter-trans-disciplinary) sustainability research: Sustainability, v. 3, p. 1090-1113.

Versick, D., and Troger, P., 2014, Transdisciplinary challenges of scientific computing: Journal of Integrated Design & Process Science, v. 18(1), p. 1-4.

Wagner, T., Baum, L., and Newbill, P., 2014, From rhetoric to real world: Fostering higher order thinking through transdisciplinary collaboration: Innovations in Education and Teaching International, v. 51(6): 664-673.