Reflections on an Interdisciplinary Look at Sustainability

Written by Brianna Menning, PIRE Program Manager

One of the great aspects of the PIRE is that students come from a variety of backgrounds to learn together, and the professors teaching them have a variety of backgrounds too. The PIRE is intentionally interdisciplinary. Earlier this month, Ajay Nagpure, UMN Postdoc, asked the students to reflect on the interdisciplinary aspect of the class, specifically he asked, “How has exposure to interdisciplinary course changed your opinion of specialization vs interdisciplinary work/research?”

Here are a few of the responses from the students:

  • “I feel like this course has given me exposure to systems thinking and I am able to ‘zoom out’ when I am thinking about a problem, not only to include other technical aspects but also social and political ones.
    By itself, the air quality study I am conducting would not be as gratifying if I were not aware of the bigger picture. With even the fuzzy knowledge of how my study could inform policy, I feel better prepared to tackle the task of writing this paper. And if I am completely lost, I know who to ask.”
  • “I am fascinated by interdisciplinary learning and working. I am curious about how different organizational structures (academia, gov, etc) incentivize specialists vs. generalists and/or how they bring together people from different disciplines. I also wonder whether globalization and changing job markets will favor specialists or generalists in the future.  I believe we will always need both. And we should always strive to value the work of the other.”
  • “I think that both specialization and interdisciplinary work are crucial to have an impact on broad issues. The example of how many different organizations/agencies work in silos kind of got me thinking. Having some, even many, specialists working within the confines of their silo has great benefits in that it allows them to focus entirely on their area of study and be able to provide the best available research and information in their field. Though some people being isolated has some benefits, the information should not be restricted to their silo or else it won’t have the maximum potential impact on public policy.
    The way that I see the silo analogy, the silos and specialization is good, but each silo needs to be arranged in such a way that they all have some connections to one another and can effectively share information. This is where the interdisciplinary workers come into play. They make the connections between the science, engineering, public policy, etc. and present it in such a way that it is able to have a positive impact on environmental conditions and hence public health.”
  •  “My exposure to engineering has led me to believe that technologies deliver the basis but not the entire solution to our sustainable issues. The solution will require interdisciplinary efforts and system thinking since our society/environment are both complex systems.
    A framework that provides the overall guideline such as the one we are working on is a brilliant idea!”
    The chance to work together across universities, countries, and disciplines has created an excellent opportunity for these students to learn together from one another as well as more formalized learning in the classroom and out in the field!
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