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Help Develop a Sustainability Short Course Piloted at SRI2023

Why should Future Earth offer a short course in sustainability science? We, the community of GRN researchers, need to be able to speak a common language and have a common understanding of key ideas to be able to effectively work together across global research networks. The question has been raised by the France hub’s Autumn School (October 2022).

Future Earth Taipei has organized a series of webinars geared for early career researchers in sustainability science, and the Japan Hub’s TERRA School provides an introduction to transdisciplinary research, but a complete curriculum spanning the full range of Future Earth’s local and national organizations, global hubs, and global research networks, from natural to social science and transdisciplinary research, in support of fully recognizing the Future Earth mission, has not yet been developed. This was highlighted by early career researchers and recognized at the September 2022 Future Earth Assembly meeting in Paris. 

So was born the idea to pilot such a short course at SRI2023. Our goals were to test the concept and to gauge whether there was community interest in such an offering. Other SRI sessions focused on the development of transdisciplinary research in Latin America and for evidence-based training transdisciplinary research trainers.  

The first goal was challenging: What are the central disciplines in sustainability science? Are there a small number of key concepts and a common language across sustainability science that everyone should understand?

One of the session organizers, Michael Evans, wrote a first draft of the session. To condense a planned weeklong short course into a 2 hour experiment as a Training Workshop, we envisioned 5 Easy Pieces: The most essential concepts and terms from Ecosystem Science, Climate Science, Environmental Economics, Sustainability Sociology, and Transdisciplinary Research, with lots of time for Q&A.  Following these brief introductions, we asked participants to put these ideas into practice by confronting them with a Sustainability Challenge.  The session concluded with normative feedback: What did you think went well? What suggestions do you have to improve it?  Would you want to participate in a full scale course?   

Other organizers (S Steinig, J Lopez Prol, T Buser, C Krug, S Hebden) graciously agreed to serve as facilitators and build specific pilot content.  They identified the key ideas: systems and feedbacks; energy balance and carbon budgets; market externalities; and types of knowledge. They improved the session design by idealizing and introducing the multifaceted Sustainability Challenge at the beginning of the session; and created a structured, unified, interactive, non-hierarchical and active-learning-informed presentation style.

So how did it go? We are biased observers, of course, but there was a lot of enthusiasm in the room.  Participants leaned into the Sustainability Challenge in unexpected ways, learning from each other’s contexts and research backgrounds.  Some noted how complex problems could become tractable when approached through multiple disciplinary lenses. Others asked for less jargon and to add the discipline of Communications.  Several commenters proposed a more specific real world case study for the challenge, confirming an authentic desire for a full scale short course.

What do you think?  This idea needs your comment and constructive criticism. Check out the SRI 2023 session description and the slide deck, then please contribute by completing a short survey by 10 October 2023.

MN Evans, University of Maryland, College Park USA (

J Lopez Prol, Yonsei University, Mirae, Korea

S Steinig, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

T Buser, Global Alliance for Inter- and Transdisciplinarity (ITD Alliance), Bern, CH

C Krug, University of Zürich, Zürich, CH

S Hebden, Future Earth Sweden & ESA Climate Office, ECSAT Harwell, Oxfordshire, UK