For the last post as part of our special series focused on Australia and New Zealand we travel back to Melbourne to speak with Susie Ho, Course Coordinator of the new Master of Environment and Sustainability at Monash University in Australia. This new Masters, currently in its second year, is a truly interdisciplinary approach that doesn’t just allow students to take courses in different disciplines but involves the active participation and collaboration of faculty across several parts of the university.
Introduce the new cross faculty masters and how it came about.
The Monash Master of Environment and Sustainability provides interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and specialist topics, plus real-world practice, all within a single course.
It was created by a range of senior University experts from different disciplines, from Arts, Science, Business and Economics, the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, and beyond. All recognised that challenges in sustainability require interdisciplinary discussion and multidisciplinary solutions, and future leaders with the capacity to span boundaries.
Young change agents of today are incredible – they are articulate, bold and passionate about improving the world around them for people, ecosystems, and economies. However, to do this, they will need to deal with considerable complexity and influence behaviour, organisations, and social systems. This course aims to provide the theory as well as the interdisciplinary awareness and hands on, real-world experience and 21st century skills to help foster their technical and personal capacity to help drive innovation and lead sustainability initiatives in Australia and internationally.
What are the key features of the programme and how does it work.
The interdisciplinary springboard to the course provides a strong and broad foundation for understanding the nature of sustainability and global change – as well as the languages of different disciplines, cultures and sectors as required for effective collaboration. Students collaborate to examine and integrate different forms of evidence and diverse perspectives – as will be required in the complex work environment and the world ahead. The forward-thinking specialisations include unique perspectives and synthesis of emerging fields and trends in global change. Students critically examine and apply professional practice in Australia and globally in topics such as environmental security, governance, international development, leadership and corporate environmental and sustainability management.
Throughout, the course connects students with experts and influencers from across the many disciplines and industries of environment and sustainability – as well as one another – their future global work network. They can also select electives from across eight Faculties at the University.
How did you bring together the different faculties to put this programme together?
It was crucial to involve passionate educators from all key contributing Faculties at all stages. This meant collaborating on the overarching vision, to the curriculum design and skills mapping, to how the units would run on the ground. This degree is truly unique in involving all voices from the early stages to implementation. We are a tight team in regular contact to ensure that harmony persists. This goes right down to letting each other know how our students are responding to different content throughout semester. We also use a unified Course level Moodle page to communicate with students together at the course-level.
We knew from the start that a ‘patchwork’ degree was not on the table, and thus we used a broad variety of strategies to ensure cohesion and harmony as outlined above. Educators must be willing to get out of their comfort zones, and truly span boundaries themselves, just as the students will do.
A good example of our approach is our foundation units. We designed the core units, through true inter-Faculty collaboration, meaning they have the same features of interdisciplinarity, multiple perspectives, reflection, and a strong commitment to collaborative, active and blended learning. However, we were careful to be complementary rather than repetitive. So, one of our two core units explores perspectives on sustainability and develops transferable skills, appropriate for all careers, via critical analysis of conceptual frameworks (e.g. it has a social science flavour). The other focuses on evidence-based practice and sustainability science, developing transferable skills such as critical thinking, systematic review, and horizon scanning (e.g. more scientific).
What have been some of the challenges?
Interdisciplinary – true interdisciplinarity – is challenging. For educators and curriculum designers, it requires the willingness and capacity to learn new languages and ways of doing things (methodologies), and to see the merit of new ways of looking at the world. You must be able to step right out of your comfort zone and your discipline. It involves constantly learning to approach task through new disciplinary and industry lenses. I would say that self-reflection is key, for both students and educators. How is my discipline, or other elements of my culture, narrowing my view – and how can I integrate and translate what I know to go beyond my niche? For me, this is the purpose of the United Nations SDGs, and of what we do in this course.
Our students are just incredible. They are passionate, proactive, and bold change agents. For example, they come to us from 15 different countries, and with United Nations, industry, government, and other amazing professional experience. We are privileged to work with those coming in from the Colombian police force to those in sustainable fashion.
Another success of the course, noting it is only in its second year, is seeing how the course fosters careers and impact. Our first few graduates have come through, and it’s been incredible. One student has recently taken a position at Tesla. Another will lead up a Geographic Information Systems laboratory in the Colombian Police Force. Others are getting involved with the UN in their home nations, or moving into policy and consultancy.
What do your students do to prepare for post graduation?
Students are all different with different aspirations for their career ahead. Thus, we provide multiple practice options, including an internship, with many students based at E&Y and Melbourne Water over this summer, and an open project creating flexibility for students to follow their own passions. Our more academically inclined students are preparing for a PhD by commencing a thesis year. Research theses are on topics that align with the student’s particular background and passions. To provide an example of the range, one student is investigating water quality parameters and nutrient cycling while another is exploring green urban design in low socio-economic areas.
Our Course Director, specialisation coordinators, and lead educators, including Melodie McGeoch (Science), Annette Bos (MSDI), and Wendy Stubbs (Faculty of Arts), provide one on one course mapping, support, opportunities and contacts to suit specific needs. This is something that is rare and clearly deeply appreciated by our students.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
As we know, an interdisciplinary offering – a true interdisciplinary offering – is much more than allowing students to take units from a range of different Faculties. It involves educators – and students – working very hard to harmonise and integrate different knowledge and perspectives to find new harmonised solutions. It involves an incredible amount of work to collaboratively develop and where possible co-teach students but it is the type of work that rewards and enriches all of those involved.
Interdisciplinary staff and students must be supported in this deep work, through educational training, time and resources. They need time to understand one another and to ensure their approaches are harmonised. The team must work together form the get go – and be prepared to learn a lot from different fields. This extends to administrators, who need to develop new administrative models to support the inter-faculty offering.
What’s next for the initiative?
We are absolutely thrilled to be offering a MSDI-led interdisciplinary industry consultancy project for the first time this year. In this unit, students are grouped into teams based on their complementary disciplinary expertise, and partnered with a governmental or industry group, with a real problem. Just like in real consultancy work, students must liaise to understand the client’s issue, write a proposal, form a solution or product, and present it.