Student teams tackle complex environmental problems in an interdisciplinary course

By Vivian Neal and Janet Pivnick, educational consultants, Teaching and Learning Centre

January 20, 2015

George Cheng, Ross Jamieson and John Jones (l to r) have used multidisciplinary teams to help students discover new approaches to problem-solving. 

This semester, an innovative interdisciplinary course titled “Technologies, Culture and a Sustainable World” is running for a second time. It focuses on sustainable development and engineering and is cross-listed in both Engineering Science and Environment as ENSC/ENV 412. The first offering drew 19 students from 13 academic units who were tasked to address four development issues: sustainable transportation, climate change, renewable energy on Haida Gwaii, and water supply and sanitation in Kibera (a huge slum in Nairobi, Kenya). The course is co-taught by John Jones, associate professor in Engineering Science, and Ross Jamieson, associate professor in Archaeology, with the active involvement of a teaching assistant, George Cheng, a PhD student in Engineering Science.

Cheng’s involvement started in 2009 when he was an undergraduate student and president of the SFU chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He proposed a course on technology and development that was approved and handed to Jones for development. Jones wanted students to explore more than just technical solutions to complex environmental problems, and so the idea of an interdisciplinary course was born and Jamieson came on board to provide complementary expertise.

The instructional team wanted to deeply engage students in real-world problems. This would require students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to work together. Students were assigned to multidisciplinary teams, each of which was given leadership responsibility for one of four course topics. All teams were in turn responsible for researching sub-topics devised and assigned to them by the other three teams. Jamieson found some students very uncomfortable with this amount of responsibility, and Jones humbly admitted, “Handing the initiative over to the students was the most frightening experience.” Nonetheless, Jamieson found this structure to be so effective in increasing student engagement that he introduced the approach into one of his other courses.

One of the pedagogical challenges was managing the disparate level of students’ abilities, especially their technical knowledge—the course has no prerequisites except for the requirement of having 60 credits. Team diversity was a priority to ensure that each team would include some technical expertise, some communication expertise and some understanding of the complexities of social systems. Cheng believes that the diverse class composition, though challenging, provides important learning opportunities, such as “learning to write reports for people who know little about what you’re talking about.”

Curiously, though students said they would rather be grouped with their friends, they also indicated that the assigned groups pushed them out of their comfort zones, which, they agreed, was one of the strengths of the course. Jamieson and Jones found that when students were accountable to each other for their work, the quality of input and engagement rose significantly.

Still ahead is the challenge of dealing with the resource-intensive nature of the teaching—the instructors believe that the co-teaching model, where instructors are from different disciplines, is an important factor in the quality of the student experience. One option is to increase the class size while adding another TA, but the resourcing challenge is still a work in progress.

Learn more:

Ross Jamieson's faculty website >>

John Jones's faculty website: