A Focus on Transdisciplinarity at the University of Waterloo

The Declaration, Volume 5, Number 2: May 2002  [Curriculum]

“Environment and Resource Studies is the department interested in both many disciplines and moving beyond disciplines, because that’s the way the real world works.”1

What makes an outstanding Environmental Studies program? At the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, it is a commitment to teaching integrated thinking and decision making for sustainability through a multidisciplinary framework. Students in the Department of Environment and Resource Studies are encouraged to understand the ecological, social and economic aspects of environmental problems and use their skills to come up with creative, pragmatic solutions.

The Department of Environment and Resource Studies
The University of Waterloo, with over 22,000 students, has had a progressive history since its founding in 1957. When developing a plan for the Faculty of Environmental Studies in 1969, administrators recognized the value inherent in interdisciplinary approaches to education. Dr. Susan Wismer, Chair of the department of Environment and Resource Studies (ERS), explains that ERS was originally intended to serve as the “hub” of the Faculty, which also houses a Geography department and the schools of Architecture and Planning. ERS was meant to provide “an undergraduate program that would exist outside normal disciplines to address the full complexity of environmental problems, integrating natural and social sciences and using tools from both fields.” People examining environmental problems should be “interested not only in the immediate substance of issues, but also in the underlying roots, the surrounding influences, the range of possible solutions, the openings for changes and the strategies and skills needed to make a difference.”2 A transdisciplinary framework is essential for ensuring this breadth of study.

In response to this need for multiple disciplines to be incorporated into the program, a variety of options are available to students for developing their own particular interests. Students can participate in a joint honors degree program with over twenty participating departments on campus, such as English, Chemistry, Fine Arts and Mathematics. Minors are also available through different departments or faculties. Students may consider a specialized option in Business, Parks, or Sustainable Local Economic Development, a university option from another department, or a certificate in Environmental Assessment or Geographical Information Systems. There is also a joint certificate program with nearby Niagara College in the fields of Environmental Management, Ecosystem Restoration, and Environmental Assessment. Additionally, students may also choose between a regular or co-op plan of study, the latter of which allows them to alternate on-campus school terms with work terms in related jobs for up to two years of work experience.

ERS hosts a graduate program in addition to its undergraduate course of study. Masters students study a number of issues surrounding the central theme of sustainability, from environmental audits and restoration ecology to policy analysis and management strategies. Students’ research takes them all over the world, where they can ground their studies in applicable contexts and situations such as examining water supply systems in Indonesia or community gardening in Waterloo.

ERS Curriculum and the Student Experience
ERS core courses focus on training students to think critically and strategically. The roster includes courses such as Issue Analysis and Problem Solving for Environmental Studies, Ecosystem Perspectives and Analyses, and The Politics of Sustainable Communities. Many of the courses manage to integrate different disciplines and theoretical frameworks necessary for understanding sustainable development. For example, Environmental Issues in a Global Perspective examines how “various political, economic and social factors affect the health of rural and remote communities in different parts of the world,” focusing on areas such as Brazil, Nunavut, and Southern African development communities.3 Another course, Approaches to Environmental Decision-Making, “examines the context for environmental decision-making in terms of Canadian politics and public policy, global and domestic economy, ecosystem and community health, society, and ethics.”4

With a relatively small number of core courses which focus on fundamental techniques and theories, students have ample opportunity to explore other areas of interest and gain practical experience through undertaking real-world projects. Students are encouraged to take courses in disciplines across the curriculum, such as environmental art and literature, journalism, business and health.

Once students have mastered the basics, they are encouraged to put their new skills to use through group and individual projects. A required second year undergraduate course, Greening the Campus and Community, is a research methods class that has students work together in small groups to address real-world environmental problems. The problems are identified by the solid waste coordinators for the University and for the Waterloo region, and through working on these issues, students can see and experience how research fits into university and community planning and policy. Luke Bossenberry, a third year student, recalls his group’s project: “We made the local paper for our preliminary feasibility study for developing an Ecovillage on north campus.” Group members analyzed energy supply and demand, buildings, food, water and waste. Their project precipitated what would evolve into a major research initiative on campus. Class projects such as these have become significant contributions to campus sustainability efforts.

WATgreen, an administrative initiative involving students, faculty and staff, is the University of Waterloo’s response to the Greening the Campus movement. Originally set up by faculty and students from ERS working in cooperation with staff, students and professors from other departments, WATgreen promotes environmental research and initiatives at the university and helps facilitate the formation of interdisciplinary research. ERS’s Greening the Campus and Community course serves as a key component of WATgreen’s mission, not only using the campus as a laboratory for learning, but also improving its environmental efficiency and overall sustainability. In addition to WATgreen, there are a number of organizations and activities at the University of Waterloo that focus on environmental issues and sustainability. The Student Environment Commission is a student-run group with volunteers that work on environmental projects around campus. They run the University of Waterloo Sustainability Project, which aims to increase student and community awareness and involvement.

Undergraduates must also complete two individual projects: an independent research project in their third year and a thesis in their fourth. This emphasis on research is vital for an interdisciplinary program where students may not learn the typical “job skills” of other disciplines, but can use research skills in any number of careers. As Bossenberry notes, “research projects run the range of extensive literature reviews to very practical applications, and vary widely on topics. There is a great deal of diversity among ERS students’ interests.” If students are concerned about acquiring further job skills, they can take advantage of the joint degree program, or the co-op plan. First year student Amber Cantell observes that the “ERS co-op option gives students a good chance to get some real work experience, while technical options like the Niagara College certificates through the Faculty of Environmental Studies add nice touches to a degree.”

Graduate students also participate in a required research course, ERS 669: Team-Research Project, in which the whole class works on the same project and at the same time is introduced to local sustainability issues. By working in a group, students are exposed to interdisciplinary processes as well as the different roles they may play in a research team. The most recent topic for the course was creating a network for world biosphere reserves in Ontario. A conference is held at the university each year for graduate students to present their research in a multidisciplinary context.

“Modeling for our peers…”
Despite some considerable challenges, the ten faculty members in the ERS department work together well. They come from many different backgrounds, including political science, physics, geography, biology, planning, international relations, engineering, and even dentistry. Dr. Wismer, a specialist in urban and regional planning whose own research interests span from activism and ecofeminism to international development, describes several issues her department has faced in attempting to collaborate on an interdisciplinary level. One is finding a common language to use when working together and overcoming the biases inherent in each member’s conventional training. When bringing together natural scientists and social scientists, professors from the arts and humanities and those from more technical backgrounds, it can be difficult to find terms and conceptual frameworks to agree upon. It often proves difficult to collaborate in the context of long-held notions of what constitutes proper research and teaching techniques. For example, researchers who have been trained in quantitative methods may not be as familiar with qualitative techniques. One solution to overcoming these issues, discovered by ERS faculty, is learning to step outside of their roles as experts and adopting a beginner’s attitude. In this manner they learn new ways of sharing ideas and knowledge.

There is also a great deal of open exchange and collaboration between ERS faculty and students. Professors keep an open-door policy at their offices, and students are strongly encouraged to provide feedback on the program. Course evaluations are given out every term, and faculty make themselves available to discuss even their colleagues’ courses with students. The undergraduate student society holds an open town-hall style meeting each year for people to come to and express their views on the program. Graduate students develop a report annually for the faculty to examine on their retreat. Constant evaluation and feedback are instrumental in keeping the program timely and on track with its goals, and for maintaining a strong sense of community in the department.

In this department, faculty members try to demonstrate how interdisciplinary ideals can work on a practical level. Some feel that ERS faculty actually get along better than those in most single-discipline departments, especially since they are not competing in the same way for funds. To a large extent, the ERS motto, “modeling for our peers and mentoring for our students,” is confirmed.

ERS has faced several trials over the years. The popularity of the department has ebbed and flowed along with mainstream academic interest in interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches. Another challenge has been working within the university system’s discipline-focused framework. In addition, interdisciplinary programs such as ERS are chronically under-resourced. As Dr. Wismer notes, “it’s difficult for interdisciplinary departments such as this one to compete for resources with other more conventional programs.”

The issue of funding came up in a recent evaluation of the department by the University and the province. A review is required every seven years, and this past year both were done concurrently as a pilot project. Reviewers were very positive in their evaluation, but worried that, due to lack of resources, the department may have been trying to do too much with too little. Finding more reliable funding must be an integral part of the department’s future plans.

ERS at the University of Waterloo is widely recognized for its excellence in research, teaching and innovation. Its graduates have taken important positions within the business and industry, government, public interest and educational sectors. The varied skills students learn through the program – research, analytical, technical, communication – combined with the integrated knowledge they acquire, help prepare them for a future in making sustainability a reality.

1 UW ERS website, www.fes.uwaterloo.ca/ers/why_join_ers.html.

2 Ibid.

3 ERS 231: Environmental Issues in a Global Perspective, www.fes.uwaterloo.ca/ers/undergraduate/courses/ers231.html.

4 www.fes.uwaterloo.ca/ers/undergraduate/courses/

For more information on the Department of Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo, visit their website at http://www.fes.uwaterloo.ca/ers/, or contact them at Department of Environment & Resource Studies, Faculty of Environmental Studies, Environmental Studies Building 1 (ES1), University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, N2L 3G1, Canada; Fax: (519) 746-0292.

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