International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) (7th : 2015)

Engaging with sustainability through collaborative and transdisciplinary approaches to education Byrne, Edmond P.; Mullally, Gerard

Abstract

Sustainability is a normative topic framed by disciplinary perspectives. This can be problematic as the tools that are used and applied to meta-problems and ‘grand challenges’ associated with societal (un)sustainability, and which may result in proposed ‘sustainable solutions’, are framed through the lens of the ‘object world’ disciplinarian. Traditional engineering education and practice has tended to frame problems in narrow techno-economic terms, often neglecting broader social, environmental, ethical and political issues; or what might be termed the social complexities of problems (Bucciarelli, 2008; Mulder et al., 2012). This reductionist approach has sought to close down risk and uncertainty through deterministic modelling and design, resulting in frameworks/models which provide an air of misplaced confidence but which are incapable of accounting for (or recognising) unknowability, and can thus lead to behaviour which ironically, results in increased fragility, rather than promoting increased robustness or resilience. Researchers in the social sciences and humanities are inherently more comfortable and adept with dealing with complexity, uncertainty and unknowability. This paper is posited in this context, whereby chemical engineering and sociology students taking respective disciplinary sustainability/environmental modules were brought together to work on a common assignment dealing with some aspect of sustainability. This paper reflects on this collaborative exercise, including the experiences of the students themselves, alongside some challenges and successes. It concludes that transdisciplinary approaches to learning are not just desirable in addressing wicked and meta-problems when addressing challenges of (un)sustainability, but represent a sine qua non for building the social capacity in confronting these issues.

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