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  • Building Interdisciplinarity into TeachingA Dream Course on Sustainability and Global Environmental Change
  • Jeffrey M. Widener (bio) and Travis J. Gliedt (bio)

From Dream to Reality

Imagine the chance to design an upper- division and graduate course with funds to invite world- leading experts to present and exchange research and ideas with students and faculty. That opportunity exists at the University of Oklahoma’s (ou) Norman campus. ou calls it the President’s Dream Course. Specifically, faculty have the opportunity to apply for a grant from the provost in order to attract three to five distinguished speakers from outside the university. Each speaker participates in activities on the ou campus for one week, which typically consist of the speaker delivering two to three lectures to the Dream Course and giving a public lecture. This format allows the core instructors to bring in experts who complement each other and the core instructors. As well, the public lecture fosters an opportunity for the community to engage with researchers who are exploring the planet’s most pressing problems.

The provost granted two faculty members from the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability (dges) the opportunity to teach a Dream Course entitled Sustainability and Global Environmental Change during the fall 2013 semester. The core instructors capitalized on this format to create a National Science Foundation–style interdisciplinary course based on a combination of humanities scholars and social and physical scientists. The core instructors are social scientists: one specializes in sustainability [End Page 29] science and economic development, while the other specializes in political geography. Two of the distinguished speakers were social scientists who draw upon cultural, economic, and social theories to conduct interdisciplinary research on sustainable development and climate change mitigation. A third speaker concentrated on geopolitical and cultural issues in the context of climate change adaptation. The fourth distinguished speaker was a world- renowned climate scientist with over 350 publications. In addition, the chair of the dges, a hydrologist, and the dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, a climate scientist and author of a past report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc), presented their research and taught a lecture in the Dream Course. Finally, the course included students with a diverse mix of classifications and majors: six graduate students and twenty- nine undergraduate students from the Department of International and Area Studies and the dges.

Here we explain how we designed a single interdisciplinary course, which utilized project- and problem- based learning principles, to effectively teach the multifaceted concepts enmeshed in sustainability and global environmental change. Our approach contrasts the emerging integrated degree programs that require students to take multiple courses that often separate out the interrelated subject matter that, taken together, provide an interdisciplinary perspective. We find that the pedagogical techniques utilized in the Dream Course are an effective means of teaching sustainability and global environmental change from a coupled human–natural systems perspective, which, in turn, may be a good approach to engage students (and faculty) in the environmental humanities.

Global Environmental Change, Sustainability, and the Environmental Humanities

Understanding complex coupled human and natural systems requires interdisciplinary collaboration.1 The National Science Foundation’s Directorates for Geosciences; Engineering; and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture have ingrained an interdisciplinary perspective into the solicitation for their Water Sustainability and Climate research program.2 While researchers from different backgrounds are successfully synthesizing their knowledge and methods to create new models and approaches that could not have been created by any discipline independent of the others, teaching within an interdisciplinary [End Page 30] framework in the context of sustainability and global environmental change is a relatively novel and unproven concept.3

Interdisciplinary teaching in general is not new. Since the 1960s, instructors in the United States have utilized various pedagogical techniques.4 Typically, interdisciplinary teaching occurs through collaborative or team teaching, which can be meritorious for broadening a subject area beyond a single professor’s expertise.5 For decades, geographers have identified team teaching as an effective means of geographic instruction.6 The challenge, however, is for geographers to provide myriad perspectives without losing the cohesiveness that...


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pp. 29-41
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