Transdisciplinary: Beyond the Academy

By Kelley Christensen | Published

Michigan Technological University’s transdisciplinary researchers step beyond institutional boundaries to solve complex problems.

Sticky problems. Entrenched problems. Wicked problems. Their solutions go beyond classroom walls. At Michigan Tech, a number of researchers are working with peers in different industries to solve pressing issues.

Take, for example, how suburban Americans consume food, energy, and water, and how they can potentially curb their consumption.

Food, Energy, Water

Chelsea Schelly, associate professor of sociology in the social sciences department, is a co-principal investigator on the “Reducing Household Food, Energy, and Water Consumption: A Quantitative Analysis of Interventions and Impacts of Conservation” research project funded by National Science Foundation Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water. Where numbers meet people, engineers and social scientists have a lot to learn from one another. 

The greatest challenge is methodology. Not only do researchers have to learn to communicate with each other, it's just tough figuring out how to reconcile qualitative behaviors with hard numbers.

Here's the plan. The project will identify the consumption behavior of household members in the participating study communities in the Chicago area, and aims to identify cost-effective ways households can reduce their food, energy, and water consumption. The project goes beyond merely measuring kilowatt hours or gallons of water used; researchers will track food and energy to their sources to quantify the real costs of consumption.

For example, those hamburgers the Jones family grills on Friday night may have cost $10 per pound at the grocery store, but how many gallons of gasoline did the truck that transported the hamburger to the grocery store burn? How many gallons of water did the steer from which the pound of meat came drink?

Interdisciplinary

The research team includes engineering, computer and social scientists. The benefit of bringing together multiple disciplines is that team members are able to model household resource consumption and develop roleplaying scenarios to examine consumption choices and preferences in addition to using standard social science tools like surveys, interviews and experimental intervention. The model and the findings from the roleplaying scenarios will aid the group in creating a survey to further understand consumption behaviors and preferences. Additionally, the models will inform the creation of a computer application that will allow study participants to collect data about their household resource consumption and understand its impacts.

"We will collect information about actual consumption behaviors, the impacts of those behaviors, and the preferences and possibilities for shifting those behaviors, using tools from a combination of disciplines working together to produce new knowledge that none of us could do alone!"Chelsea Schelly

Beyond the Michigan Tech campus, this project involves the collaboration of academic researchers from multiple institutions as well as scientific professionals working outside academic institutions. Indeed, even participants become part of the process; one of the communities submitted a letter of support in the grant proposal and all participants will help contribute data. Transcending the academy moves research past interdisciplinary collaboration into transdisciplinary initiatives.

Transdisciplinary

One such participating institution is the People and Their Environments unit of the US Forest Service’s Research and Development branch. Kristin Floress, a research social scientist based at the Evanston, Illinois, Northern Research Station, said that her interest in the project is based in understanding how participating residents have impacts on land use, water quality and quantity as well as biodiversity, even though those impacts may not be apparent in the middle of suburbia.

Transdisciplinary researchers are working together to understand how people think about conserving water in their homes.

“We work to understand how people view, experience, impact—and are impacted by—nature and natural resources across a number of landscapes and issues,” Floress said. “Our goal with this project is that we will be able to identify the behaviors that need to adapt to have the best natural resource outcomes and figure out the most effective ways of changing those behaviors.”

Previously, understanding human behavior may not have been considered the purview of engineers and computer scientists, but the transdisciplinary effort allows researchers to approach the question of consumption holistically from multiple angles, rather than relying solely on social sciences research techniques.

“In the realm of environmental impacts and environmental issues, including the behavioral dimensions of how people use resources and how they think about using those resources, moving beyond the confines of any one discipline is essential,” Schelly said. “The issues are not discipline specific when reality itself is complex, multifaceted, and involves biophysical systems and impacts, built environment design choices, and human beings — who are social and are both motivated and constrained in their behaviors by systems operating at so many levels. It’s really essential to look not only at all elements but also at how the elements are interrelated, which requires research integrated across and beyond disciplines.”

As mentioned in part one of this series, transdisciplinary research can be more time consuming than traditional research and it can be harder to find the right place to publish, as well. The supportive atmosphere Michigan Tech cultivates to conduct inter- and transdisciplinary research can remove some of the obstacles.

The research team is excited to pursue the project, which begins this summer.

"I think the importance of working across these boundaries is that we have the chance to make a real, lasting impact on pressing natural resource management issues."Kristin Floress

The team agrees that partnerships among governmental agencies, universities, different types of non-governmental organizations and citizens are absolutely vital to solve resource management challenges.

"It’s very difficult for any one of these entities, on its own, to really be able to effect change," Floriss said. "But outcomes from partnerships have been very successful.”

Last Modified 11:09 AM, May 12, 2017


Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.