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Integrating CHANGE at UW-Madison


The NSF-funded CHANGE-IGERT emphasizes the need to integrate social science, natural science, and humanities when conducting research on problems of environmental sustainability and vulnerability at multiple scales. The essence of our program is the time and effort that we spend on teaching the specific philosophical, communication, and leadership skills that are needed to achieve this integration. Our “Highlight” this year is not a single accomplishment – it is instead the observation that all of our research, education, and trainee achievements demonstrate successful integration of multiple disciplines. These achievements could not have occurred in a conventional academic setting, and are the direct result of the structure of the CHANGE program and the participation of exceptional IGERT-funded PhD students.

Our External Advisory Committee (a four-person review committee of Rosina Bierbaum of the University of Michigan; Steven Carpenter and Sharon Dunwoody of the University of Wisconsin Madison, and Pamela Matson of Stanford University) found that our program “reflect[s] a clear understanding of what it takes for individuals to learn in an interdisciplinary way.” Additionally, they noted that our emphasis on cohort bonding early in the program sets the stage for successful collaborative interactions among our students. Our trainees and associates come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, including geography, history, ecology, public health, sociology, environmental science, urban planning, and public policy. Because we give them specific training modules on how to communicate across disciplines, they are committed to reaching shared understandings of complex environmental problems.

Each of our achievements this year demonstrates that we are on the right track. Our research achievements – such as our trainee’s service-learning project helping the Findorff Construction Company understand how cement production is linked to carbon dioxide emissions – require sophisticated understandings of biophysical and social realities. Our trainee’s individual accomplishments, such as Micah Hahn’s work assisting in the development of the HealthScapes proposal to NIH, show that our trainees can serve as facilitators – helping their peers and their faculty understand what types of insights and compromises are needed to integrate and use knowledge from different fields to solve environmental problems. Finally, our educational achievements all reflect an enthusiasm for reflection, ambitious goals (such as publishable quality work), and, when necessary, reevaluation of our learning goals. These are traits that our external review committee noted are, “a very good sign, as high quality pedagogical efforts stem not from creative ‘aha’ moments but from continuous evaluation and modification.”

After only two years of student recruitment and training in our IGERT, we have succeeded in creating an interdisciplinary learning community dedicated to understanding pervasive problems of environmental sustainability. We expect this community to be a permanent part of UW-Madison’s academic offerings.

Because of our success, the Nelson Institute for Environmetnal Studies at UW Madison is considering adapting our training program as part of the requirements for its graduate degrees. This is our proudest achievement and our highlight for the 2008/9 reporting year.

Address Goals

Learning: The students in CHANGE will leave the program to work in government, businesses, non-profits, and academia. In almost all of those jobs they will be required to work in teams where the contributions of their team partners will be crucial to the successful completion of their work. The CHANGE program helps to create a world-class workforce by ensuring that all of our trainees and associates have the kinds of inquiry and communication skills needed to genuinely understand one another?s science. This training goes beyond simply exposing students to a wide range of disciplines – it trains them how to understand the ways that aspects of culture, politics, personal background, and history can shape the meaning and usefulness of scientific research. These skills make CHANGE graduates particularly skilled at using their scientific expertise in sensitive or conflict-laden situations, which are often the most crucial for promoting broad public understanding of science and its results.

Discovery: Many of the research areas of greatest opportunity and potential benefit to the US have to do with understanding our impact on the global environment. The CHANGE program, with its emphasis on both skill training and connections between modeling science and place-based study across geographic scales, continues to shape the ways that CHANGE students think about their research. 2007-8 Trainee Megan Raby, an Environmental Historian writing her thesis on tropical biological research stations set up by the US in the late 19 th to mid 20 th century. She is working with current CHANGE Trainees and Associates to identify ecology students and faculty interested in her work. By understanding the historical factors that lead to bursts of research interest in an area, Megan may contribute to better awareness of the ways that current scientific research is influenced by social factors. Chelsea Schelly, a 2008-9 Trainee in Sociology whose work focuses on the social dynamics of energy policy formulation, has been working with a group of students and researchers in atmospheric science, engineering, and policy to put together a new energy-related graduate seminar on campus. Other trainees are examining issues such as the links between public health and landscape changes in tropical regions (Hahn), the historical environmental and cultural impacts of resource extraction on arctic communities (Stuhl), and the connections between environmental protection and national security at the US-Mexico border (Madden). Each of these students is using the comprehensive CHANGE training described above to integrate knowledge across disciplines while tackling environmental concerns. This integration, facilitated by their CHANGE training, is the only way that these complex problems at the interface between human and non-human natural systems can be understood and resolved.