Summary by day
SUMMARY BY DAY
Background:IGERT at the National Science Foundation
By Dr. Carol Van Hartesveldt, IGERT Program Officer
The National Science Foundation’s mission is oriented to the future, and studies showed a need for the next generation of scientists to transcend traditional disciplinary specialties and academic enclaves to deal with complex, real-world issues. The IGERT Program was established to respond to that need by developing emerging interdisciplinary sciences and catalyzing change in higher learning. The goal is to foster a new generation of engineers and scientists with broader and more versatile approaches to problem solving. NSF issued the first IGERT grants in 1998, and so far has funded about 4,000 trainees at almost 100 institutions. Compared to traditional graduate education, IGERT projects are more interdisciplinary, collaborative, international, diverse and likely to reach beyond academia to communities. This meeting reflects IGERTs’ growth, maturation and outreach.
Introductory talk:The Social-Ecological Challenge
By Dr. Gary Kofinas, Director, Resilience and Adaptation Program at UAF
The Earth System is undergoing rapid directional change, requiring that science and decision makers view Earth System dynamics through holistic frameworks. Sustainability science offers an opportunity for reframing the conventional enterprise of knowledge production by focusing on the integration of cultural, ecological, economic, and institutional dimensions of the system. As we develop skills as sustainability scientists, we recall the efforts of those who have come before. The crossing of disciplinary boundaries in ecology and social science is not new at the academy. And, today we find that our institutions are indeed responding to the interdisciplinary challenge. Today there are many new employment opportunities for those with interdisciplinary synthesis and problem solving skills in sustainability, yet the terrain ahead is not well charted. Sustainability science training for PhD students requires careful attention to a number of key questions. Sustainability for and of what? How do researchers appropriately involve stakeholders, local communities, and the public in science? What is the role of “objective science” and alternative worldviews for knowledge and knowledge production? What are the roles of science in social learning and the policy process? How do PhD students achieve the right balance of breadth & depth in their topic areas? How do we train sustainability IGERT students to serve in interdisciplinary teams as well as preparing them as transdisciplinary individuals? What are the special challenges facing faculty members who seek to teach and engage in sustainability science? How do we Institutionalize sustainability science as part of the graduate curriculum at universities? Given that sustainability science requires a high level of collaboration, how do we teach and foster teamwork among students and faculty? While there are many unanswered questions, there are also many opportunities.
Comparing IGERT Programs
Students and principal investigators from six IGERTs presented overviews of their programs . These included:
- "Urban ecology of a rapidly urbanizing region,” Dr Charles Redman, Arizona State University
- “Integrating research on sustainability and biodiversity conservation: an interdisciplinary team-based model,” Dr. Nilsa Bosque-Perez and Ruth Dahlquist, University of Idaho.
- “Adaptive management: Wise use of water, wetlands & watersheds,” Dr. Mark Brown, University of Florida.
- “Assessing change in coastal ecosystems: Integrating natural and social sciences,” Dr. Q Kellogg, University of Rhode Island.
- “Northern sustainability in a directionally changing world,” Dr. Stuart (Terry) Chapin and Chanda Meek, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
- “Vulnerability and sustainability in coupled human-natural systems,” Dr. Rob Beattie and Abby Popp, University of Wisconsin Madison
Conference participants then divided into groups to discuss similarities, differences, and models for sustainability education .
Common threads identified among IGERTs included:
- A focus on addressing broad, complex sustainability problems.
- A presentation of approaches and tools from diverse disciplines to address such problems.
- Use of a core curriculum offering integrative, foundational approaches such as systems or resilience theory.
- Partnerships with diverse cultures, stakeholder groups, or academic disciplines.
- Emphasis on practical applications through approaches such as internships and community outreach.
- How best to integrate disciplinary diversity.
- Making IGERTs relevant to individual student needs.
- Overcoming skepticism of other faculty.
- Stable and adequate funding for students beyond the second year.
Students noted that IGERTs span a spectrum from fostering individual transdisciplinary expertise to building teams composed of researchers with complementary specialties. Other differences included place-based versus problem-based programs, and the role of students rather than faculty in shaping program content.
[For more information, see: MAKING IGERTS WORK]
Participants divided into groups of 4-25 to discuss clusters of questions determined by suggestions submitted the previous evening. Each group produced informal notes and a summary slide. Discussions were wide-ranging and often generated more questions than answers. A common thread in the discussions was the view that the complexities and urgency of sustainability studies call for new approaches to science that reach across disciplinary lines and beyond the boundaries of traditional science.
Challenges to training sustainability scientists
Traditional science education gives little guidance regarding interdisciplinarity and steering societies’ socio-ecological trends onto more sustainable trajectories. To become effective at advancing sustainability, students must build research approaches from the most basic foundations -- addressing questions of epistemology, purpose, social justice, and tensions between objectivity and activism. Building an interdisciplinary skill set involves cultivating both niche expertise and abilities to communicate across disciplinary, social and cultural lines. Promising approaches include team-building and developing modules to teach useful concepts and methodologies to students with different backgrounds.
Challenges & opportunities in sustainability science
Sustainability science must integrate social, economic and ecological aspects of large problems. This requires addressing questions about values, resilience, vulnerability and scale. It also requires creative and flexible research incorporating pragmatism, compromise, long-term vision and a sense of urgency. People with diverse backgrounds (academic or not) must unite, and such team work requires open-mindedness, time investments and involvement of stakeholders from a project’s inception. Challenges, such as climate change and political barriers, remain serious obstructions to sustainability. However, tools such as modeling, scenario building, systems theory, resilience theory, and indicator-based assessments provide opportunities. Certain areas, such as modern cities and communication between scientists and the public, may be ripe for dramatic improvements with respect to sustainability issues.
Plenary Talk:A Sustainable Career: Interdisciplinary careers beyond IGERTBy Carol Van Hartesveldt, IGERT National Program Director
Dr. Van Hartesveldt presented an upbeat assessment of opportunities for IGERT graduates, due to growing interest in sustainability and using integrative approaches to attain it. Based on discussions with administrators who hire academics, she advised students to be creative, flexible, global, passionate about their work, and to cultivate skills pertinent to teamwork and communication. She concluded by outlining National Science Foundation programs that provide funding for students and graduates after IGERT grants expire.
Plenary Talk: Institutionalizing Sustainability Science: Relevance, Reality, and Resilience By Charles L. Redman, Director, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University
Dr. Redman described opportunities and obstacles encountered in the developing field of sustainability science, with respect to both aiding society and developing personal careers. He described how the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University uses a supportive management and flexible campus structure to respond to those challenges. He urged students to be flexible, creative and confident in pursuit of this new, vital approach.
Concluding panels & discussions:
Panel I: Minority issues in Sustainability Science
Panelists: La’ona DeWilde (U of Alaska Fairbanks); Melanie Harrison (U of Maryland at Baltimore); T.J. Eatmon (Southern U); Nilsa Bosque-Pérez( U of Idaho/faculty); Terry Chapin ( U of Alaska Fairbanks/faculty)
Discussion focused on ways to engage under-represented groups in sustainability science in general and IGERTs specifically. It quickly moved beyond race and ethnicity to encompass broader concerns about class, gender, citizenship status and tradition. Participants found that contemporary factors narrowing participation stem not from direct racism or sexism but rather from practical or perceived limitations such as financial security, reputation, tradition, institutional inertia and lack of childcare options. Because sustainability issues disproportionately threaten groups under-represented in academia, they are vital stakeholders. Yet often such people lack information, mentors and support networks to access science career opportunities. Family and societal expectations steer talented students toward known, prestigious professions such as medicine or law rather than the vague unknowns of sustainability science. The group recommended patience, mentoring, consistent funding, setting up support networks, innovative community communication, partnering with complementary programs, and recruiting outreach to students of all ages and community leaders already involved in sustainability issues.
Panel II: Conference Reflections & “Town Meeting”
Panelists: Q Kellogg (faculty – U of Rhode Island); Tim Baird (U of North Carolina); Meghan Schulz (U of Delaware); Thad Miller (Arizona State U); Narcisa Pricope (U of Florida); Abby Popp (U of Wisconsin); Rob Beattie (faculty – U of Wisconsin); and Archana Bali (U of Alaska Fairbanks) (and later the entire group…)
The discussion focused on fostering interdisciplinarity as a valuable way to address sustainability problems. Interdisciplinarity is both difficult and promising. Success begins with participants’ openness towards the epistemologies, methodologies and concerns of diverse people. Respect, listening, and outreach are vital. In an IGERT setting, allowing students to guide programs and helping them network informally encourages teamwork. Participants recommended future meetings like this one and establishing an Internet-based community to provide resources, support and a forum for ideas. They noted the group’s positive attitude and sense that interdisciplinarity has a bright future.