On October 24th and 25th, 2013 I hosted a small workshop on the nature of interdisciplinary, graduate-level water education.

The complex, multi-faceted nature of most current major water issues transcends disciplinary boundaries. As a result, water managers and decision-makers are increasingly making use of collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches.

The ability to work successfully in these environments requires a set of skills beyond that provided by the single-discipline graduate level degree programs at most major post-secondary institutions. Both private and public sector employers now seek out and hire individuals with both strong disciplinary expertise, and the ability to work collaboratively and integrate knowledge and solutions across disciplines. Communication, project management, reflexivity, critical thinking, facilitation and interpersonal skills are all desired characteristics.

Literature on best practices for water education reveals that interdisciplinary approaches that allow for disciplinary focus combined with the ability to collaborate and integrate knowledge across academic boundaries.  This cross boundary approach is exactly what is required to effectively address water problems. Water practitioners should be able to work effectively in groups, negotiate and manage conflict, productively incorporate feedback, engage in active and ongoing learning, and appreciate contextual factors. To this end, graduate-level water education should simulate real-world, problem-based team scenarios and allow for experiential learning.

If universities are to respond to these changing requirements, they must move beyond traditional disciplinary divisions. The workshop brought together researchers, teachers and practitioners with varied disciplinary backgrounds. The intention was to explore interdisciplinary teaching in the context of water education and to engage in interdisciplinary learning while pursuing the shared goal of designing a new, graduate level, interdisciplinary water course. The workshop also provided an opportunity to assess a goal oriented, collaborative, interdisciplinary process-in-action against best practices from the water education literature.

The workshop revealed a number of institutional, pedagogical and content-related insights for course development. From an institutional perspective, such a course would need to be

  • linked directly with employers’ ‘soft skill’ demands,
  • deliverable within existing academic institutional structures,
  • financial sustainable over reasonable time frames, and
  • attractive to graduate students from different disciplinary backgrounds.

Pedagogically, participants emphasized the importance of balancing the development of interdisciplinary capacity with appropriate disciplinary depth. Teaching methods must move beyond lectures with the “sage on the stage” to hands-on, problem-based learning with uncertain outcomes. Case studies that provide the opportunity for experiential learning in a team-based atmosphere were emphasized. This will represent a significant shift for some students and questions were raised as to whether students would have the “soft skills” to function effectively within an interdisciplinary milieu.

Discussion of potential content revealed a wide range of desired course characteristics.

Knowledge: participants agreed that the course must cover a range of water-related disciplinary topics including law, politics, governance, ecology, engineering, economics, geology, hydrology and health. A common vocabulary for communicating across disciplines was also emphasized.

Skills: communication, problem solving, facilitation, the ability to learn from failure, specific methodological tools, critical thinking, comfort with uncertainty and the ability to identify and challenge paradigms were identified.

 Values:  These include humility, respect for differences, responsibility, courage, creativity, openness, curiosity, appreciation for complexity, an entrepreneurial spirit and optimism.

Interested in a graduate course like this? Something that can teach water “content” and the “soft” skills employers want  from graduates? Drop me an email at [email protected]