Heuristic principles to teach and learn boundary crossing skills in environmental science education

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Since the 1970s academic environmental science curricula have emerged all over the world addressing a wide range of topics and using knowledge from various disciplines. These curricula aim to deliver graduates with competencies to study, understand and address complex environmental problems. Complex environmental problems span broad spatial, temporal and organisational scales, are multi-dimensional and involve political controversies. They are further characterized by many uncertainties and conflicting views on the nature of the problem and the best way to solve them. Generally accepted frameworks to educate environmental science graduates with the necessary competencies to address complex environmental problems are scarce. With this thesis, I aimed to explore and develop heuristic principles (i.e. ‘rules of thumb’) for teaching and learning activities that enable environmental science students to especially acquire boundary crossing skills. These skills are needed to develop sustainable solutions for complex environmental problems. I focussed on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cognitive skills as a sub-set of boundary crossing skills, and on the potential contribution of conceptual models and environmental systems analysis in teaching and learning these skills.

In order to achieve this aim, I did four studies (see Chapters 2 - 5). These studies were based on an extensive literature review, analysis of existing courses and course material at Wageningen University and elsewhere, personal experience and analysis of reflection papers written by students in authentic learning settings. The last study (Chapter 5) was an empirical statistical study. Here, I developed a strategy for teaching and learning reflexive skills, a subcomponent of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cognitive skills, and evaluated this strategy in a quasi-experimental setting.

The studies showed that operationalizing skills and developing teaching and learning activities are closely intertwined. Below, first boundary crossing skills are explicated. Next, the contribution of conceptual models and environmental systems analysis to develop interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cognitive skills, specifically, is explained. Finally, heuristic principles for teaching and learning activities to develop boundary crossing skills are presented.

Boundary crossing skills in environmental science education

To understand complex environmental problems and develop sustainable solutions require skills to cross boundaries between disciplines, between cultures and between theoretical knowledge and practice. In this study, I used the concept of skills in a broad sense that included not only the actual skills of using different perspectives and dealing with the complexities and uncertainties involved, but also the knowledge (e.g., being aware of various perspectives) and the attitudes (e.g., toward using these perspectives) which are vital for these skills.

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cognitive skills enable a person to integrate knowledge and modes of thinking in two or more disciplines to produce a cognitive advancement (e.g., solving a problem). I identified three components of these skills. The first component skill is the ability to understand environmental issues in a holistic way (i.e. considering different perspectives, systemic social and biophysical elements and their dynamics and interactions). The ability to frame environmental problems holistically allows a comprehensive insight into all relevant aspects to possibly solve the studied problem. The second component skill is the ability to identify, understand, critically appraise and connect disciplinary theories, methodologies, examples and findings into the integrative frameworks required to analyse environmental problems and to devise possible solutions. The third component skill is the ability to reflect on the role of disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research in solving societal problems. The third component skill is about critically assessing the role of science in society. It encompasses reflecting on the processes of knowledge production and application. I introduced the term “reflexive skills” for this third component.

Furthermore, I distinguished two sub-components of reflexive skills: (i) the ability to assess  the relative contributions of scientific disciplines and non-academic knowledge in addressing environmental issues; and (ii) the ability to understand the role of norms and values in problem-oriented research.

The contributions of conceptual models to teach and learn boundary crossing skills

My research showed that conceptual models are useful tools, for teachers, course and curriculum developers, and students, to cope with the challenges of environmental sciences (Chapter 3). These challenges are inherent to the interdisciplinary and problem-oriented character of environmental sciences curricula. The first challenge concerns the structure of a curriculum (i.e. how does one design a coherent curriculum, while including various disciplines?). The second challenge is teaching integrated problem-solving.

I introduced two types of conceptual models: domain models and process models. Domain models structure the domain of environmental sciences. Process models depict the different steps in an environmental research process and clarify how these steps are related to societal processes important to the research. Both types of models are valuable because they can be used to (i) improve the coherence and focus of an environmental sciences curriculum; (ii) analyse environmental issues and integrate knowledge; (iii) examine and guide the process of environmental research and problem solving; and (iv) examine and guide the integration of knowledge in the environmental-research and problem-solving processes (Chapter 3).

To expose students to a range of conceptual models during their education is essential, because such a variety is instrumental in enhancing the students’ awareness of the various approaches to frame environmental issues and to illustrate and explain how this framing has changed over time or what its consequences are. By applying and reflecting on these conceptual models, students likely acknowledge the complexity of human-environment systems and science’s role in dealing with complex environmental problems (Chapter 3).

Environmental systems analysis’s contribution to teach and learn boundary crossing skills

My research demonstrated that education in environmental systems analysis (ESA) improves students’ knowledge about integrative tools, techniques and methodologies, and their application, but also – to a certain extent – their interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cognitive skills (Chapter 4). ESA education helps to conceptualize and frame an environmental issue holistically (i.e. first component cognitive skill). By applying ESA tools, methods and models to environmental problems, students become aware of the broader context of an environmental problem, its direct and indirect causes, and its direct and indirect effects, the probable connections between local and global issues, and the interactions with various societal actors and stakeholders. ESA education likely enhances students’ ability to identify and connect disciplinary approaches in integrative frameworks, but only enhances the students’ ability to critically appraise disciplinary approaches in integrative frameworks (i.e. second component cognitive skills) to some extent. In order to be able to appraise the contribution of such a disciplinary approach to a specific environmental problem, students need to have sufficient disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary education is needed. ESA education likely supports the ability to critically reflect on the role of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in solving societal problems (i.e. the third component cognitive skills) by making students aware that a system always represents a simplified model and a particular perspective of reality, but more is needed. To successfully train students’ reflexive skills, specific teaching and learning activities are needed (Chapter 4). These are addressed hereafter.

Heuristics principles to teach and learn boundary crossing skills in environmental science education

My research revealed that acquiring boundary crossing skills requires learning activities that involve a combination of experience in concrete interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary projects, close interaction and debate with persons with other scientific or cultural backgrounds and interests, theory training and explicit moments of reflection. Obtaining concrete experience in addressing a complex environmental problem and developing and executing an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary project is an excellent starting point. Going through all the stages of an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary project, having to deal with incomplete data, addressing uncertainty and complexity, contribute to acquiring boundary crossing (Chapter 2) and reflexive skills, specifically (Chapter 5). Switching perspective, fieldwork and intensive group interaction enhance the acquisition of boundary crossing skills (Chapters 2 and 5). Switching perspectives involves working as a disciplinary expert, integrating disciplinary knowledge and empathizing with non-academic stakeholders. Fieldwork provides students with an opportunity to do so by experiencing the ‘complexity of reality’ to interact and empathize with local stakeholders. Intensive group interaction, in particular in a team whose members have diverse disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, makes students aware of differences in disciplinary approaches, perspectives, norms and values. This also contributes to a positive attitude or habitus to crossing boundaries, which is a precondition for being able to cross them (Chapters 2 and 4). I showed that notwithstanding the importance of experience in interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary projects and interaction with others, such experience alone seems insufficient to acquire boundary crossing skills. Students need theoretical training and they need to be stimulated to reflect (Chapter 5).

Key in an environmental science curriculum that aims to train boundary crossing skills, is thus a course that enables a student to actively involve in an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary project, to interact with persons (students, non-academic stakeholders and experts) with other scientific or cultural backgrounds and interests, and to switch perspective. The teacher’s role in such a course differs considerably to traditional lecturing and providing information. I disclosed three crucial tasks for teachers in interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary student projects: (i) facilitating the students’ (research) experience, (ii) proving theory input, and (iii) encouraging students to reflect.

Theory input consists of integrative ESA methods, models and tools (Chapter 4). Theory also consists of the theoretical and philosophical aspects related to problem oriented environmental research, such as insights about science-society interactions in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, the differences in logic of societal and scientific practices, and the role of perspectives and values in scientific research (Chapter 3). Providing students with these latter insights is particularly important in training the students’ in reflexive skills (Chapter 5).

Mastering boundary crossing skills is a long term process and requires alignment of modules and courses of an environmental science curriculum. Not only the teaching methods, but also the assessment procedure, the climate created in interaction with the students, the institutional settings, and the rules and procedures all need to work together towards boundary crossing skills as learning outcomes. Only under such conditions, can students effectively acquire and develop the necessary boundary crossing skills, required to successfully address the major environmental and sustainability challenges.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Leemans, Rik, Promotor
  • van Koppen, Kris, Co-promotor
Award date14 Oct 2015
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462574830
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2015


  • education
  • environmental sciences
  • heuristics
  • teaching
  • teaching skills


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