Transitioning to Sustainability through Transdisciplinary Knowledge Production Models

Lindsey B Payne, Purdue University


Today’s world is fraught with highly complex, grand challenges in sustainability, including depletion and degradation of natural resources, widespread suffering and poverty, and a changing climate. As human and natural systems are increasingly integrated, sustainability solutions will need to integrate biophysical and sociocultural dimensions in order to ensure the well-being of present and future generations. Future leaders in sustainability must be able to think critically, integrate multiple perspectives, and communicate effectively across traditional and non-traditional knowledge boundaries. These sustainability problem solvers will need to understand the dynamic, complex interactions between human and natural systems, and participate in engaged, collaborative transdisciplinary partnerships that produce knowledge that is use-inspired and embedded in real-world context. Transdisciplinary knowledge production occurring between knowledge generators and knowledge users requires in-depth participation of users and the integration of knowledge from both practice and research. It also has the potential to account for the complexity of natural and human-made environments. There is, however, a lack of understanding among scholars as to how transdisciplinary knowledge is defined and generated across academic fields of study. Research is needed to provide definitional clarity for transdisciplinary knowledge and offer production models to support the development of key sustainability competencies in future leaders. The first study in this research project investigated how transdisciplinary knowledge is understood and generated across academic fields. Eighty-eight scholarly articles were thematically analyzed for actors and interactions involved in transdisciplinary knowledge production. The analysis yielded a definition for transdisciplinary knowledge in the context of climate change adaptation and model for a transdisciplinary knowledge production. In a second study among twenty-two practitioners in Bolivia and Colombia, the Q-methodology was used to determine perspectives of transdisciplinary knowledge. Individual Q-sorts were factored analyzed and four perspectives of transdisciplinary knowledge emerged. Perspectives one and two aligned with an emerging contingent of academic scholars calling for transdisciplinary knowledge production models, whereas perspectives three and four aligned more closely with traditional knowledge production models. Lastly, a third study, designed for a university engineering course and Engineering Projects in Community Service skill sessions, investigated the need for engineering students to be able to integrate non-technical dimensions into their design solutions and increase their key competencies in sustainability. Forty students participated in the study, fifteen in the engineering course and twenty-five in the skill sessions. Using a convergent parallel design with a mixed methods assessment approach, data were collected using a variety of instruments and analyzed using thematic analysis and appropriate statistical tests. Results demonstrated that a transdisciplinary knowledge production model-focused intervention in an environmental and ecological engineering service-learning community-based design course increased students’ awareness, understanding, and ability to apply non-technical dimensions in design solutions, as well as increased their competencies in sustainability. Additionally, this final study further advanced the understanding of appropriate learning environments and methods for teaching professional engineering and sustainability competencies, and provided curricula for instructors specifically designed to create future leaders in the transition to sustainability.




Shepardson, Purdue University.

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