Students’ Perspective on Building Knowledge for Sustainability*

By Tischa A. Muñoz-Erickson and Thaddeus R. Miller * Op-Ed previously published on February 2009 in the Newsletter of the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), Pages 24-25;

Newsletter editor: Bernardo Aguilar-González

In the fall of 2007, we joined twenty-eight other students as the first class in the School of Sustainability (SOS) at Arizona State University. As one of the nation’s first schools to offer degrees in Sustainability, we knew that we were embarking on an experiment. Previous training in environmental science and policy, as well as exposure to transdiciplinary fields such as ecological economics, which work across academic disciplines and in conjunction with society, partially prepared us for the problems and opportunities that arise when obtaining a degree in Sustainability.

Building knowledge for sustainability demands exposure to such academic backgrounds, and much more. The School of Sustainability has brought in students and faculty from completely different fields, such as anthropology, ecology, economics, engineering, geography, geology, and the humanities, to engage with each other and sustainability. This unique blend of personnel has a profound effect on the way we work across academic disciplines and approach real-world issues.

As we--students and future scholars and practitioners in the field--attempt to build knowledge for sustainability that will contribute to solutions for society’s problems, we face what we see as three key questions:

1)  How do we become agents of change, while working in the context of academic institutional constraints?

2)  How do academic institutions balance the production of more stable, disciplinary knowledge with innovative knowledge for sustainability?

3)  How do programs like SOS develop and maintain an identity while adapting to an evolving societal discourse around sustainability?

While we do not intend to answer these grand questions at this time, our unique experience in this new program puts us in a position to reflect on individual and organizational strategies that could facilitate a more adaptive learning process for sustainability science. Why adaptive? We believe that the traditional linear model of science and society that informs our academic enterprise is not conducive to dealing with the social changes that sustainability entails, and the way that these in turn influence what knowledge is necessary. The linear model assumes that academics need only to pursue their research agenda without input from society and that this research will in some way have a positive impact on society.

It has been our experience that even programs doing interdisciplinary and problem-based research are still working within the context of the old scientific model. Although still valuable to the pursuit of knowledge, they are missing key conditions to build knowledge for sustainability: reflexivity and epistemological pluralism. Reflexivity shatters the linear model by including society in the production of knowledge to the point where such involvement may fundamentally alter the type of and ways in which knowledge is produced. Science shapes and is shaped by society. A prerequisite for this interaction is epistemological pluralism. In short, epistemological pluralism acknowledges the validity of multiple ways of knowing. In order for the various fields mentioned above to accommodate one another and society, these two conditions are key starting points for a functional research endeavor in sustainability.

Academic institutions must recognize that our success in this new field will not only be on the basis of our expertise, but on the basis of building the skills necessary to instill reflexivity and epistemological pluralism into the sustainability knowledge endeavor.

The School of Sustainability has some unique advantages that facilitate this experimentation. Rather than being a research center that seeks to bring disparate disciplines together, SOS is a free standing school with substantial support from the university administration and a blank slate for faculty and students from various disciplinary backgrounds to work with. Not only does SOS have a smorgasbord of fields to choose from, it is also comprised of students who have diverse career goals. Therefore, in addition to training students in several fields of studies and equipping them with the necessary collaborative and analytical skills, SOS must also train students for industry, government, business, academia, and nonprofit careers. We are working with the faculty and students to develop strategies that will build this diverse skill set in our students and enable the school to adapt to changing societal conditions, rather than become entrenched in a disciplinary or single issue-based way of approaching sustainability.

To us, sustainability education will be successful if we can serve as effective boundary spanners among the scientific, policy, and societal arenas, while at the same time synthesize and create new knowledge for sustainability. At the School of Sustainability we still have a long way to go to make sustainability education part of the norm rather than the exception, but we have taken the first big step: a commitment to experiment and learn.

Contributors' Biographies:

Tischa A. Muñoz-Erickson is a PhD candidate at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellow in Urban Ecology. Her interests lie broadly in the area of institutions and governance for sustainability, with a focus on adaptive governance, science/policy interface, collaborative management and research, and environmental values/perspectives. For her dissertation work, Tischa is exploring the interaction of knowledge and decision-making for urban sustainability in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she also serves as Co-PI and Project Coordinator of the San Juan Urban Long Term Research Area (ULTRA), an NSF-funded program. Tischa holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from Northern Arizona University. Her master’s thesis evaluated the ecological and social outcomes of collaborative management with the development of place-based sustainability indicators for a rangeland collaborative group in northern Arizona. Ongoing collaborative research projects include exploring the role of culture in shaping ecological worldviews, social network analysis of information flow in water management, and evaluating science-society research collaborations for forest restoration and sustainable development.

Thaddeus R. Miller is a PhD candidate at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and a National Science Foundation IGERT Senior Fellow in Urban Ecology. For his dissertation work, Thad is exploring the normative dimensions, especially the ethical, of emerging research agendas of science and technology for sustainability. More broadly, he is interested in the role of values in science and policy and how we organize knowledge production and our academic institutions to produce knowledge that might result in beneficial societal outcomes. Thad also holds an MPA in Environmental Science and Policy from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His other ongoing collaborative projects include the ethical dimensions of debates in international conservation, evaluating science-society research collaborations for sustainability and examining the meaning and usefulness of social resilience.