Leuphana Universität Lüneburg: leuphana-sustainability-summit

February 19, 2012

Sustainability: Enabling a Transdisciplinary Approach


via Leuphana Universität Lüneburg: leuphana-sustainability-summit.

In 2012 the international community will celebrate 20 years of Agenda 21, the guiding vision agreed to by 179 nations at the Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Since then the idea of sustainable development has been discussed at uncountable gatherings around the world and numerous activities – in academia, politics, civil society as well as the private sector – have been initiated to bring the idea of sustainability to life. Interconnected sustainability challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, economic and social instability are however still with us – and some of them are becoming increasingly serious. The institutionalization of sustainability as a regulative idea has only started in some spheres of activity and some areas of the world. To achieve transitions towards sustainability, continuous inquiry, learning, and adaptation is needed. And this requires science to go beyond disciplinary – and even interdisciplinary – approaches. By bringing about mutual learning, collaborative research, and problem solving among business, government and civil society, transdisciplinarity can serve as an important guiding concept for sustainability science and practice. Over the last 10 years, progress has been made to better understand and design the interface between sustainability science and transdisciplinarity. The conference focuses on three leading questions:

1. What insights about the role of transdisciplinarity for
 sustainability transitions have we gained over the last 10 years?

2. What gaps in research still remain?

3. How can we fill these gaps?

These guiding questions will focus the debates in workshops, plenary and parallel sessions in four topical areas: Biodiversity, Global Sustainability, Education, and Corporate Sustainability.

One of the thematic sessions, on sustainability learning:

Enhancing efficiency and effectiveness of sustainability learning through embedded case studies and outdoor training

Tobias Luthe1,2

1Universität Freiburg, Centre for Key Qualifications; 2University of Applied Sciences HTW Chur


The Sustainability Leadership Training (SLT) is a transdisciplinary higher education course to train future opinion leaders on the concept of sustainable development, using embedded case study methods and outdoor activities to achieve a more effective and more time efficient learning progress and outcome. Mental or social skills such as leadership, instrumental skills such as systems thinking and professional knowledge on economics, ecology and society are part of the transdisciplinary course concept.

The SLT has been successfully taught since the year 2005 at the University of Freiburg, Centre for Key Qualifications, Germany. Since then about 150 students participated directly in the course program with a much higher outreach to other students and the public through the communication and dissemination activities. The SLT has been acknowledged as a UN Decade Education on Sustainable Development program 2010.

Through the combination of outdoor activities and embedded case studies more students from interdisciplinary study programs can be reached and involved in block seminars during their normal programs.

The goals of the course are to

  • develop a conceptual understanding of sustainable development (sd) for participants,
  • make participants to systems thinkers by learning from human-environment interactions and by developing network models,
  • explore, practice and understand sd in a local context by working on an embedded case study in tourism,
  • train key skills for sd: knowledge in the fields of ecology, economy, social issues and technology; instrumental skills (in especial systems thinking) and mental or social skills (e.g. team work, taking over responsibility,…),
  • train (time) efficient: using outdoor sports as a mean for motivation and to efficiently drive team spirits, stepping over social barriers,
  • foster a self directed and meta cognitive learning atmosphere for the students in an informal training setting,
  • develop skills to transfer sd competence into daily life as a management tool,
  • enable participants to qualify and evaluate sd in a political and subjective context,
  • scientifically evaluate the SLT course and further develop it as an efficient and effective training tool on sd in higher education.

The SLT was developed as a time efficient course to be implemented into University summer or winter term breaks in order to reach a maximum number of participants who are not studiing in a specific sustainability program. The SLT benefits from students with various interdisciplinary backgrounds who contribute with their individual experiences, with their study backgrounds and by creative as well as critical reflective discussions.

Results of the long term evaluation after six years of implementation suggest that indeed the majority of participants were considerably affected in their behavior of taking leadership in sustainability, despite of the short and intense course time. Mental and instrumental skills were evaluated most important for the professional world. The outdoor activity elements proofed to be of key importance for participation and motivation. Furthermore the evaluation results are promising to establish such a curriculum in any higher education institution in form of a ‘studium generale’.


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