Initial Publication Date: August 19, 2016

Developing Transdisciplinary Sustainability Curricula Requires an Academic Culture Change

DAVID W. SZYMANSKI ( and ERIC A. OCHES (, Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts; DONNA FLETCHER (, Department of Finance, Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts; TIMOTHY W. SIPE (, Department of Biology, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; JEFFREY NESTERUK (, Business, Organizations, and Society Department, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; SHELDON P. TURNER (, Science Department, Triton College, River Grove, Illinois; CHRISTINE H. MOONEY (, Management Department, College of Business, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois; and ELLEN R. IVERSON (eiverson@carleton. edu), Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota.

Sustainability is a "wicked" problem, inextricably linked to earth system science. There is no question that meeting the scientific challenges of sustainability while ensuring economic stability and social equality in an increasingly resource-constrained world requires a scientifically literate public. But problems like climate change and resource scarcity are rooted in inherently complex natural and human systems. Building on the original use of the term by Churchman (1967), Rittel and Webber (1973) noted that "wicked" problems have no unique solution and even more importantly, they cannot be uniquely formulated, nor can solutions be defined by any single discipline. As Earth science educators, we demonstrate this fact each time we teach the enhanced greenhouse effect in the historical context of fossil fuel use, or each time we steady ourselves for the inevitable political discussion that follows.

Wicked problems require a transdisciplinary approach to how we teach students to think critically about the role of science in commerce, technology, and civic engagement. While disciplinary understanding of a problem is important, helping students develop a more accurate model of the problem's complexity requires transdisciplinary curricula. Therefore teaching "sustainability" requires a cultural – and perhaps more specifically, an institutional – change in the way we think about curriculum development.

The language of cross-disciplinary study is transient. Stock and Burton (2011) address the use and misunderstanding of the terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary with respect to sustainability research. In this framework, interdisciplinary teaching links the critical disciplinary concepts describing interactions among the human and natural systems that comprise wicked problems. In the sense of Stock and Burton (2011), transdisciplinary teaching goes even further, describing a problem in wholly new ways, not by breaking down the walls between disciplines, but by merging disciplinary concepts and methodologies and showing the problem in new light. But how do we actually develop transdisciplinary sustainability curricula?

Our team has been working toward a model for the curricular fusion of STEM, liberal arts and business disciplines through collaborative development and assessment of transdisciplinary undergraduate sustainability modules (Szymanski et al., in review). As an undergraduate business school, over 90 percent of Bentley's approximately 4000 undergraduate students major in business disciplines. However, the advanced, technology-focused business program is combined with an integrated liberal arts curriculum, and Bentley has a rich history with respect to integration of STEM, liberal arts and business education. Our approach began with a successful pilot project at Bentley that resulted in a transdisciplinary module on the use of corn ethanol as an alternative fuel in the U.S. The module was developed by a multi-disciplinary team of STEM, liberal arts and business faculty members and deployed in a variety of courses, including Principles of Geology, American Government, Environmental Chemistry, and Microeconomics.

In our evolving model, faculty across different disciplines and different institutions work together to design course-, curriculum-, and program-level modules that allow them to teach disciplinary concepts in the context of a transdisciplinary problem. While we are in the early stages of this scaled-up test, we established seven criteria – or "key qualities" for sustainability topics that optimize participation among our colleagues in business, STEM, humanities, and other fields (see Table 1).

Given the complexity in managing this sort of curriculum development, it is imperative to have detailed objectives for student learning and faculty/ institutional change. Again, although we are only at the beginning of this larger experiment, we have established several overarching, measurable goals and objectives (see Table 2).

Similarly, we expect to be able to measure changes in the knowledge, skills and perspectives of participating faculty. The end goal is to trigger institutional change in the way educators (and hopefully administrators) view the development of sustainability curricula. Institutional change begins with faculty members. More specifically, after participating in the transdisciplinary curriculum development process, we expect that faculty will be able to: (1) teach familiar concepts in the context of a complex transdisciplinary problem; (2) explain the transdisciplinary nature of wicked problems; and (3) effectively collaborate in transdisciplinary teams.

With respect to new perspectives, we also expect faculty to (1) understand the value of transdisciplinary education; (2) demonstrate increased motivation for transdisciplinary collaboration; and (3) understand how institutional culture affects transdisciplinary collaboration.

While this model is built on integrated sustainability curriculum development for undergraduate students, it capitalizes on the opportunity and the necessity to reframe STEM education for all students in the context of sustainability. Although this model requires a more collaborative, cross-disciplinary faculty culture in course and curriculum development, an advantage of this approach is that it does not mandate a change in institutional administrative structures. We believe this bottom-up, faculty-driven cultural shift can be affected by building relationships within an institution, which have curricular, research, and personal/professional benefits to participating faculty. Institutional change that requires new departmental structures, new curricular programs, or administrative investments historically fail. We also aim to demonstrate the benefits of this integration for students and faculty without sacrificing disciplinary autonomy or content in any field. We'll let you know how it goes.


Churchman, C.W., 1967, Wicked problems: Management Science, v. 14, p. B141-142.

Rittel, H.W. J., and Webber, M.M., 1973, Dilemmas in a general theory of planning: Policy Sciences, v. 4,p. 155–169.

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