Transdisciplinarity: Universities have a chance to lead

We live in urgent times. The world continues to experience ongoing environmental, health and sociopolitical crises that are highly complex. Shifts in public perception of and distrust in certain forms of science have accompanied increasing calls to action by global organisations. They warn of catastrophic climate impacts, species extinction and future pandemics.

Such complex scenarios are impossible to address using a single disciplinary approach. They require interdependent strategies of social, scientific and technological interventions – made possible, in part, through transdisciplinary approaches in higher education.

While universities over the last century have been staffed by specialised faculty who train graduate students to become disciplinary experts, they need to adapt to the current, increasingly dynamic global landscape.

Knowing that the world is complex, we are confronted with a need for different approaches to co-create knowledge and enable change collaboratively.

An opportunity for leadership

Creating a new generation of complex systems thinkers who can contend with global challenges involves equipping students with transdisciplinary competencies and expertise. Whether this occurs in undergraduate or graduate education, universities have an opportunity to be leaders in this area.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to pin down a widely accepted definition of transdisciplinarity. A general understanding of transdisciplinary research often includes various disciplines dissolving into one another to create new forms of knowledge, adaptive and collaborative team learning, and a partnership between academia and society – working with society, as opposed to for it.

This ultimately involves collaboration within higher education, as well as engaging with diverse non-academic stakeholders to co-create feasible and practical solutions. Establishing transdisciplinary approaches are especially important given the growing desire among students to develop transferable competencies and skills – such as communication, managerial and synthesis skills – required by non-academic employers in industry, government and non-governmental organisations.

Case study findings

To examine how such needs are being addressed, we conducted a case study examining collaborative transdisciplinary graduate programmes at the University of British Columbia, which is a large (over 72,000 students), public, research-intensive university in Canada.

Our findings show that initial exposure to a broad swath of research areas and approaches allowed students to cultivate certain values, attitudes and beliefs that are essential for collaborative transdisciplinary research. These included intellectual curiosity, openness to learning about different disciplines and tolerance towards different perspectives and approaches.

These programmes help train students to communicate their perspectives to colleagues in other disciplines and non-academic partners, find ways to complement other views and approaches, deal with tensions that may arise during collaboration, and translate knowledge for different groups where needed.

Faculty members also recognised that students increased professional opportunities by being exposed to applied or public-facing scholarship across and beyond the university, developing relationships with peers outside their departments or lab groups, and becoming part of a community or network of like-minded scholars.

We found it was important for programmes to guide students on how to identify and create a shared language across disciplines and a knowledge of how to translate that into collaborative research. It is also essential to strategically design interpersonal research skills and competencies related to in-depth collaboration and conflict resolution for programmes and activities.

Looking forward

This study provides insights that may be relevant to other international universities looking to build or sustain transdisciplinary programming. Here are some possible recommendations for programme administrators and-or educators:

• Provide institutional infrastructures to maximise opportunities for transdisciplinary encounters and collaborations beyond faculty member supervision, such as training in team skills and integrative research.

• Emphasise interpersonal competencies related to collaboration and conflict resolution as dedicated learning outcomes (rather than by-products) of programmes.

• Commit enough resources for faculty members to support programmes, such as teaching or service relief, funding mechanisms for cross-faculty collaboration, support staff or graduate admissions open to multi-faculty supervision and collaboration.

• Create a unified set of degree requirements for transdisciplinary programmes that allow space and time to pursue different forms of graduate research.

• Build transdisciplinary programmes with stakeholders to support integrative research that has relevance outside of academia by scaffolding student group projects with multiple opportunities for stakeholder, faculty and peer feedback to retain a sense of continuity in these relationships.

Transdisciplinary programmes in higher education can ultimately create a new generation of researchers who are capable of contending with complex challenges by training them to cultivate a broad range of transdisciplinary research competencies and expertise.

A growing number of international higher education institutions are making renewed commitments to collaborative applied research to tackle complex challenges like the climate and nature emergency.

Designing and implementing these programmes at scale will require substantial investment, experimentation and learning. Continuing to engage in this process, and finding ways to foster transdisciplinarity in the university ecosystem, promises exponential long-term benefits to students, faculty and institutions themselves.

Aishwarya Ramachandran is a PhD candidate in kinesiology. Klara Abdi is a PhD candidate in language and literacy education. Amanda Giang is an assistant professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. Derek Gladwin is an assistant professor in language and literacy education. Naoko Ellis is a professor in chemical engineering. This research team is from the University of British Columbia in Canada and is funded internally through the Advancing Educational Renewal.