Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning

A problem solving approach to environmental issues is essentially interdisciplinary. Science, technology, and individual and institutional behavior are components that shape environmental problems, their context, and their solutions. An awareness of the entire environmental system is necessary for decision making. Science, technology, human behavior, and decision making form an increasingly complex hierarchy in relation to the environment. This hierarchy can be viewed in terms of objectives, processes, participants, and interactions among components.

Building a conceptual framework is at the center of all teaching and learning. The complexities of the environment are best conceptualized in terms of systems. The core knowledge for environmental literacy is therefore presented in this text in terms of the systems that compose the environment.

We integrate subject matter and pedagogy to attain our objectives. Our approach is based on students attaining five areas of understanding and experience:

  1. core knowledge;
  2. problem-solving and decision-making framework, including analysis, synthesis and evaluation skills;
  3. student mental models and conceptual change;
  4. learning to learn;
  5. confidence, autonomy, and ownership.

The philosophy for each of these areas is described below very briefly. We give some relevant examples of material developed under each category, although each of the mentioned exercises could also be used to illustrate the other points. The pedagogy of using a conceptual framework is important to enable all students to develop a sense of ownership of knowledge and confidence in their decision-making capabilities. The emphasis is on active, participatory, problem-based, experiential learning, incorporating teamwork and students systematizing their knowledge as appropriate. Cognitive and affective learning objectives as well as pedagogical methods are interwoven in our description throughout this text to provide an integrated framework for teaching and learning.

1. Core Knowledge

A fundamental core of principles and methods is the foundation for environmental literacy. This is a small and manageable yet sufficiently comprehensive set so that all the issues in the problem area of "environment" can be understood with these principles. The general nature and applicability of these principles should be made explicit to the student so that they form the basis for understanding a broad array of problems. Ideally, the core knowledge should be interdisciplinary so that artificial disciplinary divisions such as science, economics, and technology will not be an impediment to the student facing a complex situation involving interactions of science, technology, and society.

The fundamental aspects of knowledge necessary for understanding environmental problems include:

  • energy, particularly the first and second laws of thermodynamics,
  • the law of conservation of mass practiced as materials balance
  • basics of ecology and ecological systems,
  • growth, focusing on the interaction between population growth and resource consumption,
  • risk, focusing on how quantitative risk is calculated, and how that is communicated,
  • environmental ethics, environmental justice, and environmental equity, and
  • emerging ways of thinking such as industrial metabolism and industrial ecology, green design, and sustainable development.

2. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Framework

The ability to apply knowledge is a central requisite of environmental literacy. The critical judgment to discriminate between options is normally a faculty developed with expertise and practice in a given subject area. Yet here we want to develop this evaluative faculty in a "non-expert." This means that the student should learn not only the facts but also develop an understanding about the context, processes, and their strengths and limitations.

The dimensions of the environmental issues described above have to be presented in a coherent, yet adaptive and flexible conceptual framework so students can continue to learn as issues emerge and paradigms change in the future. Rather than being a prescriptive and rigid structure, this framework will be developed by students from the subject material they learn and the pedagogical techniques that place them in decision-making contexts. The traditional knowledge hierarchy described by Bloom is: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. In the case of environmental problems, college students have a certain level of pre-existing knowledge. A useful way to frame the learning is first to elicit their knowledge on the subject in the form of their mental model (for example, using a concept map), and then to correct and enhance this model. So, it makes sense to begin with the synthetic knowledge they have, then provide some unifying and organizing principles. From there it is possible to go about the process of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, developing in the students the capability to seek out the relevant knowledge for a given problem or situation.

A framework we have used successfully to organize student learning is that of engineering design. This framework can be laid out as follows:

  1. Identify a need (environmental need or problem)
  2. Analyze and state the problem
  3. Acquire the concepts and tools needed to solve the problem
  4. Generate alternative solutions
  5. Compare alternatives for relative merit according to criteria and value provided by the context
  6. Choose and design the best alternative.
  7. Redesign the "prototype" if the testing finds problems that are unacceptable.

Design can be considered a paradigm for teaching in general. Broadly, the five elements of good educational design may be thought of as:

  1. application of knowledge,
  2. problem definition and solving,
  3. ethics,
  4. judgment and decision making, and
  5. team work.

Teachers can use this framework to design the content, process, and the learning environment. At different levels of student learning, different relative emphases may be placed in these domains, depending on the student's knowledge, developmental stage, and interests. Aspects such as needs assessment (problem definition), decision making, and ethics--which have received attention recently as central components of science and engineering education--are brought in naturally into this "education as design" framework.

The adaptation of this problem solving framework to an environmental problem is shown schematically in Figure 1. In the case of an environmental problem, the issue is defined (or "felt") often as an ecological or human health impact. After defining the issue, the relevant questions or problems to be addressed also have to be defined carefully. Figure 1 shows the stages of environmental problem solving, along with the recommended student activities that accompany each step, and feed into the next.

Figure 1: Stages of environmental problem-solving.

In addition to achieving cognitive goals, this approach also has value in the affective domain. Design provides a setting in which important aspects of learning such as student ownership of knowledge and relevance of the subject can be fostered as an inherent part of the educational setting. Pedagogical and motivational factors (such as teaching knowledge in context, learning through trial and error, extended periods for observation and testing, seeing the use of the material learned, and ethical responsibility as part of the goal of the design engineer) are all automatically built into the design paradigm for learning. All of these factors have been cited by numerous authors as necessary for attracting and retaining female and minority students. 1 , 2 , 3 , 4

The simple yet powerful tool of concept mapping provides an example of providing the student with a method to map the concepts and connections. This representation provides the student with a way to express and explore the frameworks to be learned in the course.5 General issues of representing and framing knowledge are discussed later.

An example of an exercise we have used very successfully to teach analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, as well as research skills, is one in which a team of students do a "comparative life cycle analysis". They take two options of a familiar consumer product (e.g., soft drink bottles of plastic or glass; cloth or plastic diapers) and do a life cycle analysis. Students develop criteria by which they decide which of the options is more environmentally friendly, and design an appropriate logo.

3. Student Mental Models and Conceptual Change
As explained in the previous section, the aim of our course is to give the student the ability to recognize, structure, and formulate an environmental concern, then seek the relevant knowledge, skills, and tools to address the concern. Environmental concern is the beginning and end of this quest. Understanding of science, of technology, and of human and institutional behavior and decision making and their interplay is necessary for a complete approach to any environmental concern.

The organization of the material into systems provides the students with a way to organize their own mental models. Basic knowledge (science) as well as applications of knowledge (technology) are introduced in the context of environmental systems. In order for students to acquire ownership of their knowledge, it is important to understand the process of acquiring, organizing, and using knowledge. Students come with a significant amount of knowledge, varying according to their backgrounds. The first step is to draw out and write an organized presentation of their knowledge, already integrated by them into some framework. Use of this student "mental model" as the foundation for teaching is central to interdisciplinary teaching. It naturally engages the student in a process of discovery and integration, as well as in a process of clarification, correction and enhancement of knowledge.

To complete this process of inquiry and to gain competence, it is also important for students to understand the processes of acquiring and processing knowledge. Generally, science is taught as a product, rather than as a process of building models. This can lead to an inadequate understanding of the capabilities, limits and uncertainties of science. Interdisciplinary teaching implies teaching the context and process of generating knowledge, as well as providing a historical and social context for the knowledge. This type of situation is especially important in enabling students to think critically and to develop competencies for decision making.

Learning involves an interaction between what the learner knows (his/her existing mental model of the subject), and the new material that is presented. Incorporating the new material into the existing cognitive and affective framework involves conceptual change. Although the ideas of learning as conceptual change and the nature of understanding have been the topics of writing of philosophers from ancient times (Plato in Meno) and more recently (Hume, Ayer, Quine), recent research in education and cognitive processes have empirically explored and formalized the theories of conceptual change. A simplified view of conceptual change is that depending on the degree, conceptual changes may be large shifts in the mental models, referred to as accommodation, or, additions to existing models, called assimilation. In this book, we attempt to present methods and exercises as well as sequencing and compiling of material to facilitate both as appropriate. Conceptual change models of learning have been described by numerous authors from different perspectives, notable among them, Kenneth Strike, George Posner and Joseph Novak of Cornell, M.C. Wittrock of UCLA, Deidre Gentner of the University of Illinois, and Leo Klopfer and Audrey Champagne of the University of Pittsburgh. A nice collection of their works is found in a volume edited by Leo West and Leon Pines.6

Different people learn and think in different ways. While this is a widely accepted view in education, we do little as a community to be cognizant of this in teaching and in planning in courses. The pluralistic models of thinking came into public prominence in the U.S. with the publication in 1983 of Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind.7 Gardner's frameworks form an integration of evolutionary, cross-cultural and neurological evidence. A sociocultural framework of learning and thinking had also been developed by L.S. Vygotsky in the U.S.S.R., but was largely unknown in the U.S. until his work began to be translated and published here in the early 1960's. Gardner's multiple intelligence and Vygotsky's social and participatory views on learning have been used elegantly by Vera John Steiner to explore creativity in a number of well-known creative people in her Notebooks of the Mind : Explorations of Thinking.8 Some understanding of these "multiple intelligences" is necessary if we are to serve students with care. To this end, this text provides a range of activities that invites students' creative participation.

4. Learning to Learn

The student citizens' education needs to evolve and continue to serve them in the face of change. For this, the course should also teach the "scientific and humanistic ways of thinking," including methods of structuring a new problem, and methods of recognizing commonalities and differences in classes of problems so that the transfer of learning to a new problem occurs as it develops. Gentner has shown that such translation of learning does not occur automatically9 , so it is necessary that generalizability and limitations be discussed explicitly in the course. Again the conceptual frameworks and tools aid in this development.

5. Confidence, Ownership and Autonomy

To be competent decision-makers students have to develop a problem-solving mentality that can enable them to feel confident and take "ownership" of adapting solutions to new problems. This means that the pedagogy of teaching has to place the students in situations not only of solving a specified problem, but in situations where they have to define the problem, collect data from diffuse, "real-world" situations, and formulate strategies for solutions10. Active problem-based learning through case studies used routinely in our courses is a means of formulating, structuring, and solving problems. These assignments require students to represent the points of view of diverse stakeholders in the issue at hand. They also have to develop and present solutions founded on substantive knowledge and evidence. Articulation is an important part of literacy, and these presentations help students develop and improve this skill.

Over the years, we have seen that a byproduct of this approach is the confidence and ownership that students develop towards their knowledge. They begin to gain the competence to go in search of the facts, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate data, and examine the ethics of various decisions. During the semester we observe the students becoming increasingly adept at setting up and solving problems, and also become more autonomous and sensitive in their decision making.



[1] Tobias, S. They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier, Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation, 1990.

[2] Rosser, S.V. Teaching the Majority, New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.

[3] Rosser, S.V. Female-Friendly Science, New York, NY: Pergamon Press, 1990.

[4] Nair, I. ???? 1995.

[5] Novak 1984

[6] West, Leo and Leon Pines (ed.). Cognitive Structure and Conceptual Change, Academic Press, 1985.

[7] Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind : A Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1985.

[8] John Steiner, Vera. Notebooks of the Mind : Explorations of Thinking, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997 ( Revised Edition; original, 1985)

[9] Gentner, Dedre. Mental Models. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1983.

[10] Cassidy, 1977.

  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.