Students’ perceptions of interdisciplinary coursework: An Australian case study of the master of environment and sustainability

Jessica K. Abbonizio, Susie S.Y. Ho

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)

Abstract

Over the past decade we have seen a global increase in interdisciplinary sustainability degrees. These degrees are relatively understudied due to their recent emergence. To better understand the challenges and benefits of this type of coursework and learning experience, we must explore students’ perspectives. Rarely explored from the student viewpoint are: (1) highly interdisciplinary instruction that transcends more than four disciplines; (2) the potential effect of students’ incoming disciplinary background. This case study seized an opportunity to gain insights and perceptions from students across very diverse backgrounds within a shared interdisciplinary program. We surveyed 61 students enrolled in a highly interdisciplinary degree (Master of Environment and Sustainability; Monash University, Melbourne, Australia) and compared responses of students from STEMM, non-STEMM and mixed incoming degrees. Students’ specific disciplinary backgrounds were diverse, including physical sciences, engineering, marketing, business, fashion, law and education. We used a mixed methods approach to analyze survey data. The dominant perceived benefits of interdisciplinary training reported were: (1) career relevance; (2) expanded knowledge and perspectives of sustainability issues; (3) confidence in envisioning sustainability solutions. The main perceived challenges reported were potential confusion from rapidly upskilling into new domains and disciplinary jargon. Interestingly, respondents in this case study viewed these challenges as an authentic reflection of professional sustainability practice rather than a pedagogical issue. In line with this, students showed a preference for pedagogical approaches that simulated real world scenarios and developed career skills. Disciplinary background did not generally influence students’ views. All students identified similar challenges, benefits and pedagogical preferences, with one difference. Students from mixed prior degrees and non-STEMM disciplines showed a possible trend towards valuing cross-disciplinary teamwork more than those from STEMM backgrounds. Overall, our findings suggest that the diverse student cohort within the highly interdisciplinary sustainability program of this case study generally viewed this mode of education as beneficial, career-relevant and accessible. This case study may additionally encourage interdisciplinary educators from other fields, such as health professions, to also include more diverse domains and student cohorts in their programs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8898
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
JournalSustainability
Volume12
Issue number21
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2020

Keywords

  • Accessibility
  • Challenges
  • Employability
  • Interdisciplinary education
  • Pedagogy
  • Postgraduate
  • STEMM
  • Student perspectives
  • Sustainability education
  • Teamwork

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