Transdisciplinary Research in Graduate Engineering Education: A conversation with principal investigator Hua Li

As communities grapple with the ripple effects of climate change, there's never been a greater need for innovative, sustainable solutions. Through the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) program, researchers at Texas A&M University-Kingsville are exploring new pathways for graduate students to seek community-driven solutions through the power of transdisciplinary research. Participating students build their skills in a series of in-depth workshops and then take part in field-based, service-learning projects working directly with communities in need. Principal investigator Hua Li reflected on the promise of this transdisciplinary approach with his project to expand vital opportunities for graduate students while preparing them to solve critical community challenges. 


What brought you to the IGE program — how did it align with your vision for this project?

Our vision was to leverage the power of transdisciplinary training to support a new generation of graduate students, particularly those focused on the management of air, water, energy and other vital natural resources. We had a strong team of faculty from a diverse range of disciplines — industrial and environmental engineering, bilingual education, anthropology — come together around a shared interest in launching this transdisciplinary model. In the communities we serve here in South Texas, where many of our students are Hispanic, cultural norms lean toward students remaining in this region and close to their families. Whatever their choices in terms of career paths, we wanted to ensure our students had the chance to study and work across disciplines and equal access to innovative opportunities to advance their knowledge and skills. The IGE grant is allowing us to pilot this transdisciplinary approach for our project, titled Transdisciplinary Research in Graduate Engineering Education (TREE), and to assess its impact for our students and for the communities we serve.


How does this training model work?

The foundation of the model is a series of workshops focusing on three essential areas: intercultural communication, community and stakeholder engagement, and quantitative and qualitative mixed research methods. Our aim through these core workshops is to increase students' awareness of and skills in transdisciplinary research. With this training, when they are thinking about a community problem or challenge, they won't just be thinking from their own perspective but considering the issue from its origin and from a range of viewpoints. We also want to make sure they are equipped with the skills to communicate effectively with diverse community members. 

The following semester, we will offer six advanced workshops together with an in-depth service-learning project. We are working with a number of local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and local government agencies to determine possible projects that are grounded in real community challenges. Students will work in teams to gain practical field experience and opportunities to reflect on their work. At the end of the one-year cycle, our hope is for students to have valuable transdisciplinary experience that will deepen their skills and prepare them to seek sustainable solutions for those grand challenges in our society and the environment.


Why are natural resource issues at the heart of the project?

One of the reasons we decided to focus on environmental challenges was our location in South Texas and the issues facing the communities we serve. This is largely a rural area, but we're also close to the Gulf of Mexico and the city of Corpus Christi, which has significant infrastructure problems and has experienced three 100-year flood events in the last 10 years. There are also communities, such as colonias, around us that don't yet have sewer lines or safe, reliable drinking water.

Addressing these challenges demands more than just bringing in a civil engineering company to tackle a single project, like building a road. That won't solve societal problems fundamentally. To create a holistic solution, you have to get input to understand the specific needs of community members. We want to train our students to engage the community from the beginning, so they can really identify the core of a challenge and determine a transdisciplinary approach to solve it. We want engineers to have the knowledge and skills to be able to approach community members to get at the heart of complex issues. At the same time, we also want to train students in fields like education, psychology and sociology, so they can get a perspective on these areas from an engineer's point of view. Drawing on that transdisciplinary perspective is what will help us find solutions to complex issues related to climate change and extreme weather.


The first series of workshops are happening this semester. How have students been responding?

Since this is our first cohort, we wanted to keep our group at a manageable size and primarily recruit students from a range of disciplines who we knew might be interested. Many of the students in this group have an engineering background, including mechanical, industrial and environmental. But we also have several students from psychology and one from mathematics. 

The workshop environment is completely different from the typical classroom experience, and some students were initially a bit unsure. But I really give credit to my co-PIs Arieh Sherris, who focuses on bilingual education, and Christine Robbins, who is an anthropologist, because they spent a lot of time designing these workshops to make them very interactive. Students work in teams and connect with others across disciplines. And now that we're almost through this first set of workshops, we're getting very positive feedback from participating students. The workshops provide an experience that is much closer to a real-world workplace, and it's helping to broaden students' perspectives on their education and research. We believe it will help prepare them to generate more innovative ideas once their degrees are completed.


After completing these foundational workshops, students will be able to take part in service-learning projects that involve real community engagement in the field. Talk about what you have planned.

We've made some strong connections with local NGOs that are looking forward to bringing our students into their workplaces. Recently, during our community engagement workshop, we were able to share a brief video made by one of the NGO directors that discusses the challenges their organization is currently working on and how they imagine the students involvement. So we're excited to begin that process next semester.

For the community engagement workshop, we drew on real-world case studies and used a four-stage method to engage students with a community problem. For example, we first posed a broad question: Given that the city of Corpus Christi has experienced three 100-year flood events in the last 10 years, how could we help address that problem? Students engaged in discussion and shared their thoughts, and then we helped them narrow down key issues and identify factors they would want to include in developing strategic solutions. We're planning to use that same process for the service-learning experience. Through the four-stage method, we'll facilitate discussions with students, and then have them engage in regular meetings with NGO teams, community leaders and stakeholders to determine how they can support better community outcomes.


When you look ahead, what do you hope is the long-term impact of your IGE project?

As a team, we really hope we can make students, faculty and even administrators realize how powerful transdisciplinary research is and understand that almost every complex societal challenge, particularly environmental and natural resource challenges, is not a stand-alone problem. In the short term, we want to ensure more students are not only aware of this transdisciplinary approach but are also equipped with the skills needed to carry it out during their graduate studies and after graduation.

We hope we're building a foundation for the long term, so more faculty within our university can tap into the power of transdisciplinary research. But beyond that, we're hoping to give students a chance to create sustainable solutions in the critical fields of renewable energy, water resource management, air quality and more. We're beginning to see engineering students turn their focus beyond isolated technical issues, and start to look at broader societal issues and how they can contribute to solutions. One student told us this workshop will be invaluable to their goal of launching their own consulting company, because they will need to communicate effectively with communities about environmental challenges. 

We're thrilled we were able to get our NSF Research Traineeship project funded this year and will also receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support service-learning projects. All of this will allow us to transition the IGE workshops into regular credit-bearing courses for students to pursue as part of their degree programs. Our hope is that more students will be able to take advantage of this approach and gain valuable experience in transdisciplinary research.

None of this growth would have been possible without the IGE program, which has allowed our faculty to dedicate their time and effort toward developing a new program with a new way of teaching that we are really passionate about. We truly believe this work can have a very long-term impact on our students, our faculty and communities across our region.