Running a Successful Interdisciplinary Programme – Ryerson University

Since 2000, Ryerson University in Canada has been offering a unique interdisciplinary programme that brings together faculty from all of the university’s six departments. The Environmental Applied Science and Management (EnSciMan) Programme was a response to a clear societal need for graduates at the Master’s level with expertise in the core areas of practice in the Canadian environment industry. With a focus on applied research with immediate implications for practice, EnSciMan provides opportunities for students to bring together engineering, geography, public health, urban planning economics and other fields to create solutions to today and tomorrow’s challenges.

I spoke with Cory Searcy, Graduate Programme Director Environmental Applied Science and Management from Ryerson University about this programme.

Introduce the Environmental Applied Science and Management Programme and how it came about?

The EnSciMan Programme began offering its M.A.Sc. degree in 2000.  It was Ryerson’s first independent graduate programme. In the late 1990s faculty members in eight schools and departments (three engineering departments, chemistry and biology, geography, public health, urban and regional planning, and economics) collaborated in the initial development of the M.A.Sc. programme as a cooperative and multi-disciplinary degree.

The M.A.Sc. programme was developed to clearly link the environmental sciences and the management and decision-making disciplines in order to provide students the opportunity to integrate the two areas of study in the classroom and in their research. The emphasis was on applied research for resolving problems in environmental protection, conservation, and sustainable development. Much of the research conducted in the programme is intended to have immediate implications for practice

How has the programme grown over the years?

The initial planned intake was 12 full-time and 12 part-time students per year. In recent years, there has been a shift to more full-time M.A.Sc. students. The planned intake is now circa 20 full-time M.A.Sc. students per year. Several part-time students are also typically admitted.

The programme has continued to grow over time. The strengths exhibited by the faculty and students of the EnSciMan M.A.Sc. programme, through their published research and successful completion of degrees, were translated into the approval in 2008 of a Ph.D. programme in EnSciMan. The first cohort of doctoral students were admitted to the programme in the Fall 2009 semester. The planned intake was initially 5 full-time Ph.D. students per year but the target has typically been met or exceeded. The target now stands at 6 full-time Ph.D. students per year.

Since its founding, the EnSciMan programme has continued to foster research and training in the environmental sciences and in environmental management. The M.A.Sc. and Ph.D. students are now supported by over 85 faculty members at Ryerson University. EnSciMan is the only programme at Ryerson that includes faculty members from all six of the university’s faculties. The programme has been successful in preparing graduates for professional careers in the environment industry, as well as for doctoral studies.

How is the programme interdisciplinary?

The EnSciMan programme is designed to provide students with both breadth and depth of knowledge in both its programme fields (i.e., environmental science and policy and environmental management). This is done through, what the programme refers to as, its “T-shaped curriculum”.

The previous director of EnSciMan, Michal Bardecki, has discussed this concept in considerable detail. He explains that in many graduate programmes students acquire and graduate with highly specialised and deeply developed “I-shaped” expertise. However, in the 1990s an alternative model emerged recognising the value of those with “T-shaped” skills. Figuratively, the horizontal crossbar represents an ability to apply knowledge across disciplines and an understanding of fields outside one’s principal area of expertise, as well as complementary skills of communication, institutional knowledge, and the ability to solve problems collaboratively.

Recent research has continued to argue the case that the goal of shaping a T-shaped professional should guide programme development and delivery in a wide variety of discipline areas at universities. This can be particularly true of interdisciplinary programs which students’ strong foundation of specialised knowledge. For students seeking professional development, approaches such as these are often particularly attractive since they offer the promise of bridging to workforce relevance. There are manifest benefits to students as employers often seek those who can perform as “environmental integrators” (i.e., managing and coordinating projects, working in multidisciplinary teams and networking effectively). In addition, students possessing skills as both “specialists” and “generalists” may be better able to adapt to the inevitable fluctuations in the job market.

The EnSciMan programme possesses a T-shaped curriculum providing problem-solving and research depth in one area while explicitly incorporating overall breadth in the understanding of a range of other fields and developing complementary skills seen as valuable to students in the development of their careers.

What have been some of the challenges in creating an interdisciplinary programme such as this one?

Some of the key challenges in creating the program include:

  • Student funding: EnSciMan is a graduate program that does not have an undergraduate program directly associated with it. As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to secure Teaching Assistant (TA) positions for students. That said, many undergraduate programs from across the university have helped our students find TA positions.
  • Different academic cultures: EnSciMan includes over 85 faculty members from across the entire university. As a result, sometimes expectations for students (e.g., in the completion of their research) are different.
  • Seminar and office space: There is limited designated seminar and office space on campus for the interdisciplinary graduate students. Students and faculty are thus dispersed throughout the campus. This can create challenges in fostering a sense of belonging in the program.

What about some successes? 

There have been a number of successes. Two I would like to highlight are our graduate successes in securing employment in an environmentally-related area and our long history of successful co-supervision of graduate students. Over 90% of our graduates work in an environmentally-related field. The full details are available in the programme’s occasional paper (starting on page 21).

The co-supervision of graduate students has long been encouraged in the EnSciMan programme. This reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the programme and provides students with exposure to a variety of perspectives. As noted in our occasional paper, over 25% of M.A.Sc. students have been co-supervised. Many of these co-supervisions bridge departments and faculties. Examples include biology and public health, mechanical engineering and geography, biology and urban planning, and economics and occupational and public health. With over 85 faculty members in all six of Ryerson University’s faculties, it is anticipated that EnSciMan students will continue to enjoy opportunities to be co-supervised by faculty in a wide range of research areas in environmental science and environmental management.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

Establishing reasonably common expectations for students (in terms of both coursework and their research) is very important given the different academic cultures involved in the programme. We need to always make sure we are fair to all students, which can sometimes be a challenge given the very different backgrounds and needs they will bring to an interdisciplinary programme. One key challenge these types of programmes may have is that faculty members are often members of a “home” department. This can result in them being pulled in different directions. It is therefore particularly important to have a core of several faculty members who are deeply committed to the interdisciplinary programme. One challenge of these programmes is that they often belong to everyone and no one. Several faculty members need to be deeply committed to the programme to make sure the needed things actually get done. We’ve been lucky to have this, but sustaining this commitment over time is a challenge for any interdisciplinary programme.

What’s next for the initiative?

EnSciMan is a well-established programme, however, we continue to improve over time. Key areas of focus include working to address the challenges listed above. We also recently completed a curriculum review, which resulted in the addition of two new courses (on responding to climate change and business fundamentals for environmental professionals).

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2 Responses to Running a Successful Interdisciplinary Programme – Ryerson University

  1. I am faculty in this EnSciMan program and can vouch for it as being an excellent graduate program and unique for it being multi-disciplinary across the university. This program is community building across the university in the most sophisticated way.

  2. Pingback: Day 24: Interdisciplinary Degrees – Future MBA

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