SESYNC at the AAAS Annual Meeting

The AAAS Annual Meeting, the world’s largest general scientific conference, is being held this year in Boston, today through Monday, February 18. As many as 10,000 attendees are expected, including early-career scientists, teachers, and parents and children.

SESYNC will be among the thousands in attendance, and among the few invited to speak in a technical seminar.

“The world is more wicked than our disciplines.”

February 11, 2013

Assistant Director, Education and Outreach

The world is more wicked than our disciplines.”

– Dr. Herb Childress, Dean of Research and Assessment, Boston Architectural College

In Florida, a state task force has recommended that universities change the way they assign tuition rates, based upon the major a student chooses. The recommendation and the resulting furor and controversy reflect a fundamental debate facing higher education today: What is the value of higher education? According to the task force, the value is all economic. Florida’s universities should charge different tuition rates based upon the needs of the Florida job market. Under this proposal, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors would be charged lower tuitions, while social science and humanities majors would end up paying more.

Not everyone agrees with the Florida task force. Dr. Herb Childress, Dean of Research and Assessment at Boston Architectural College, reminded the audience in his opening plenary at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) conference, that one purpose of higher education is to prepare students for the future. We need to be mindful, he said, that the future is full of Wicked Problems—urgent problems that are ill-defined, dynamic, complex, public, and often intractable. Examples of Wicked Problems include global climate change, water resource management, biodiversity, and sustainable development. How do we prepare our students to deal with these problems that will have profound impacts on their lives? To begin, we need to define the value of higher education, and liberal arts in particular, as more than disciplinary content knowledge. As Dr. Childress emphasized, higher education should reflect the interdisciplinary nature of our Wicked Problems, and educators should strive to develop the interdisciplinary, collaborative, civic, and leadership skills that our students will need to manage these problems.

So what needs to be done to move towards this goal? I gathered several insights at some of the AAC&U conference sessions and talks, but I found two particularly relevant to SESYNC. First, in a discussion on the “intersection between innovation and ethics,” Dr. Deborah Johnson, Professor of Applied Ethics at the University of Virginia, pointed out that the greatest barrier to interdisciplinary work across the STEM disciplines and social sciences/humanities is the attitude that “STEM seeks truth and is impartial. [In reality], science and technology shapes and is shaped by society.” Thus, changing this attitude is critical in enabling the interdisciplinary work between the natural and social sciences that the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) facilitates. These kind of cultural changes take time, but as more voices—including those from the SESYNC community—insist on the importance of studying science in the context of society, progress is being made.

The second insight came from a session on “creating institutional change for next generation STEM learning.” Dr. Judith Ramaley, Distinguished Professor of Public Service at Portland State University and President Emerita of Winona State University, described her vision for higher education and STEM education, which might be summarized with her point that “we [higher education] need to develop transdisciplinary approaches to the study of STEM, guided by a problem-based curriculum.” Dr. Ramaley emphasized the importance of applying STEM knowledge in an interdisciplinary way to make progress on local and global challenges, and provided several examples from Winona State for how she created an institutional culture to support this critical goal. These included the implementation of annual campus-wide “signature themes” focused on critical challenges such as water.

As higher education institutions shift towards this vision of higher education shared by Ramaley and others, the SESYNC community has an important opportunity. By demonstrating how synthesis research across natural and social sciences can provide useful, “actionable” knowledge for decision-makers, and by advancing the teaching of socio-environmental synthesis to train future researchers and to increase science and environmental literacy, SESYNC can add a strong voice in answering the question: What is the value of higher education? The value is in the future and in the way we prepare our students for the challenges that lie ahead.

NCEAS Summer Institute 2013

The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) is pleased to invite applications from early-career researchers for a three-week intensive training workshop in ecological analysis and synthesis, to take place at NCEAS in Santa Barbara, CA, June 19–July 10, 2013.

Now Accepting Applications for 2013 Summer Internship Program

The University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is accepting applications for the 2013 SESYNC Undergraduate Summer Internship Program. Interns in this program will spend the majority of their time working with mentors at their offices or labs on research projects related to socio-environmental issues.

Urban Ecological Sustainability: Multi-level Governance of Water, Energy & Carbon in the Northeast Megaregion of the United States

The emergence of megaregions across the globe is an unplanned experiment in urban growth that often encompasses multiple ecoregions, multiple governance arrangements, and biogeochemical interdependencies. This pursuit will use the Washington, DC-to-Boston urban megaregion as a case study to explore the linkages between urban infrastructure, ecological thresholds, governance strategies, and coupled biogeochemical cycles.

Sustainable Social Networks in Alaska

This project investigates how social networks help people living in mixed market subsistence economies sustain natural resources, families, and communities. It investigates individual adaptability and community resilience by analyzing a unique and comprehensive set of household demographic, economic, social network, and natural resource data collected annually by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Subsistence Division (ADF&G). 

Beyond Traditional Roles: The Contribution of Psychology to Environmental Sustainability

The problems of environmental protection are wicked problems, without clear solutions and with complex interdependencies between human and nonhuman species and the physical/material environment. There is increasing need, as well as increasing interest, in joining the knowledge and methods of psychologists to more traditional approaches by ecologists, conservation biologists, and environmental policymakers. There have been many multidisciplinary collaborations.

Ecological vs. Political Time Scales for Expected Outcomes to Restoration

The time scales over which ecological systems respond to signals from their environments (both human and nonhuman) are subject to physical and biological constraints—species populations can only grow so fast; coral larvae can only re-colonize devastated reefs with limited speed; rivers release nutrients stored in sediments over decades, if not millennia. Humans often take action, and expect a response, over much shorter time scales—a few months to a few decades, at most.


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