Multi-discipline courses will help solve emerging global problems

Studying one subject won’t help save the world. Shutterstock

Across the globe, we are experiencing rapid changes to our environment and social structures. Climate change, population growth, and social unrest are causing ever increasing problems. The rate of change poses serious challenges for education and how we prepare graduates for an unpredictable future.

Courses addressing environmental change and social adaptability are slowly appearing in university prospectuses around the world. For the most part, these topics come in the form of new post-graduate courses.

For example, Harvard University has a graduate program in sustainability and environmental management. The prospectus states students will be “primed to create solutions to the crises affecting our global community”. Many other universities also now run similar masters-level courses on environmental sustainability.

Combining different subjects

But sustainability as a subject can only be taught by drawing from several academic disciples. The answers to the big global questions cannot be found within single traditional disciplines such as biology or politics on their own.

The new courses tend to combine elements of environmental science, economics and politics. They often include modules covering new topics such as global environmental politics or the sustainability of food production. Enabling students to learn from multiple disciplines is a crucial step towards helping them address the big problems facing society. This is particularly important since we cannot predict what the future problems might be.

Undergraduate courses have lagged behind, but there are some truly interdisciplinary degree courses beginning to appear. Several universities now provide a diverse education via new BASc degrees in arts and sciences. The most successful examples are from University College London in the UK and McMaster University in Canada.

Helping to solve tomorrow’s problems. Lightbulb image via Shutterstock

The BASc degrees typically include new modules on multi-disciplinary working and communicating knowledge. These enable students to then pick and mix from pre-existing modules across many different departments. Additional features of these degrees include interdisciplinary research projects and substantial work placements, which are likely to improve employability.

Flexibility and online learning

Broad interdisciplinary degrees are unfortunately not yet widely available. However, more international universities are now offering flexible combined honours degrees. This approach is similar to the US major/minor model of higher education.

Many university students also now routinely use Massive Open Online Courses to extend their learning beyond their degrees. Supplementing learning with online courses provides broader training than is available through standard degrees.

Such approaches are well placed to provide the diversity of knowledge students need to address the global environmental and social problems that don’t stay within the realms of a single subject. But diversifying education is only part of the change needed. The methods we use to teach and assess students also play critical roles in making them adaptable.

Problem-based learning is already at the heart of many medical and law degrees. It provides the opportunity to practice broad thinking under real-world situations. Problem based learning also encourages self-directed and explorative learning. This approach could be used more broadly to encourage the ability to adapt that students need in the current climate.

For example, students could be faced with a local farmer who is experiencing crop failures, or a small business which is struggling due to the increasing cost of raw materials. The students then research the underlying problems and potential solutions. Both scenarios are broadly related to climate change, but the first might require pulling together subjects such as ecology, soil science, engineering, and economics. The second scenario might require research on climate forecasting, ecosystem services, and business.

Some universities now offer cross-disciplinary problem-based learning events focused around global challenges such as food security or even educational reform itself. Assessment can be directly built into these new forms of teaching, reducing the reliance on traditional exams, which have been widely criticised for being a poor test of understanding.

Skills for unpredictable situations

Rolling out modern teaching and learning approaches more broadly could help students to integrate the many disciplines needed to address global change, and to apply their knowledge to unpredictable situations.

Our education system was designed for a bygone time, and is not equipping students with the skills to thrive in our changing world. It is clear that employers increasingly need staff who are capable of working in unstructured situations. Broader society also needs the same flexibility in this time of great change. Reluctance to change is common, but universities will need to embrace new approaches educate tomorrow’s society.

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