Motivating Transdisciplinary, Local-Action at the Undergraduate Level: Wicked Problems and Design Thinking

Hannah Fernando and Danielle Lake, Liberal Studies, Grand Valley State University (Lansing, MI): Motivating Transdisciplinary, Local-Action at the Undergraduate Level: Wicked Problems and Design Thinking

In contrast to static, disciplinary problems, many of the issues we face in the world today can be characterized as “wicked,” as dynamically complex, interdependent, high stakes issues with no simple or evident definition (let alone any simple or obvious solution). These wicked problems evolve with high levels of uncertainty in situations where both action and inaction carry serious and long-term consequences (eg. poverty, global climate change, healthcare rationing, etc.). Dominant educational practices in the United States and common abstract pedagogical strategies generally fail to provide students with the tools for preparing to collaboratively manage such problems.

How can we prepare students to tackle large-scale, wicked problems within undergraduate courses? What pedagogical methods can be used to address interdependent, high-stakes systemic problems?

This presentation details one set of answers – from both a student and instructor’s perspective – by discussing the design and outcomes of “Wicked Problems of Sustainability:” a transdisciplinary, community-engaged, upper-division undergraduate course at Grand Valley State University. The course engages students in participatory research on the inextricably linked dimensions of sustainability, such as economics, environment and social equity. Students collaborate with one another and community partners to work across networks, disciplines, and institutions in order to tackle complex community problems surrounding sustainability. The course requires students to:
1. Identify and apply the literature on wicked problems to sustainability issues;
2. Address a complex community problem through different disciplinary and value lenses with a goal towards integration;
3. In collaboration, present findings and facilitate deliberation on possible action plans;
4. Analyze deliberative conclusions and propose solution or action effort;
5. Promote the cause and engage in local action-efforts; and
6. Disseminate the results of the project through a ScholarWorks publication of their findings.

Implementing a feminist pragmatist approach, students are advised to “work with” others across a diverse span of interests – even when these interests seem to be at odds – in order to foster change. By integrating recommendations from the literature on (1) wicked problems, (2) feminist pragmatism, (3) experiential and (4) community-engaged learning, as well as (5) design thinking, “Wicked Problems of Sustainability” offers opportunities to engage and impact real problems in the community. Initial outcomes from the first three semesters of the course indicate that the strategies recommended here do help students develop the skills and foster the virtues necessary to collectively tackle our high stakes public problems.

On the other hand, the course also tends to confront students and the instructor with a series of robust challenges: from intensive student-team and community-partner collaborations, to logistical and time management challenges, to real-world execution issues. Initial outcomes from the course indicate that the current student population often struggles to (1) identify and define the problem through integration across epistemological, political, and ethical divides, (2) reach out to and talk with real-world stakeholders, and (3) execute action plans once established. The inherent challenges of messy inquiry, participatory research, and community engagement will be detailed along with recommendations for meliorating these challenges. The ultimate goal of our presentation is to provide a framework and set of tools for better preparing instructors and their students to collaboratively tackle wicked problems within their own communities.

Additional Material: