A first of its kind: PhD Interdisciplinary course at UiB

October 23, 2019

In a first of its kind initiative, Senior Researcher Dr. Ingunn Johanne Ness, leader of the research theme Creativity & Innovation at SLATE Faculty of Psychology, along with two colleagues from the Faculty of Social Science at UiB -- Birgit Kopainsky, Professor in System Dynamics, Department of Geography, and Dr. Hiwa Målen, project manager at DIGSSCORE (Digital Social Science Core Facility) -- designed and held a PhD course to help PhD candidates prepare for career paths both inside and outside of academia. The course was held the first time in spring 2019.

Dr. Hiwa Målen, Professor Birgit Kopanisky & Dr. Ingunn Ness  Photo: Ole Henrik Kongsvik

The main aim of the course was to provide the participants with the needed tools to solve a complex challenge provided by US, the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), using a new and innovative multidisciplinary method. The organizing team themselves developed the problem-solving method used in this course by combining Prof. Kopainsky’s research on the use of the system dynamics method for sustainability transitions with Dr. Ness’ research on creative knowledge processes. The PhD candidates´ final products were subsequently presented to UNEP for evaluation.

The course represents a unique and pioneering model both in terms of content and the employed methods. At the same time “the course responds directly to the UiB revised strategy for 2019–2022 ‘Ocean, Life, Society’”, as expressed by prof. Robert Bjerknes, vice-rector of interdisciplinary affairs and large projects, who was present at the kick-off.

On the singularity of this course, Dr. Målen explains saying: “One of the features that distinguish the course is that we started with a massive challenge from UNEP related to the balance between humans, wildlife and nature, and the participants managed to break it down to concrete proposals. In the process, they learned how to combine multidisciplinary research in order to suggest feasible solutions to the challenge in question”.

Along the same line, Dr. Ness confirms: “One of our main motivations for designing this course was the employability potential. What is it the PhD candidates need to know after finishing their studies? They need to learn and be able to work in an interdisciplinary team. They need to be able to communicate in a cross-disciplinary context. At the same time, in case they want to continue in academia, they need to learn and have the needed tools to prepare and write grant applications.”

The course phases

The course was divided in three phases. The first two days of the course, phase 1, were mainly dedicated to introducing the participants to the challenge in question. Then, they started to work on system thinking and mapping the challenge and understanding it from a variety of perspectives. The participants were from a wide cross-section of disciplines representing six UiB faculties (social sciences, psychology, humanities, mathematics and natural sciences, medicine, KMD), the Havforskningsinstitutt and Høyskolen på Vestlandet and had a wide variety of backgrounds representing 9 different countries.

The second phase was theoretical and involved the reading of recommended course literature. Phase three started two weeks later with a three-day hackathon. In the hackathon the students were organized into 3 interdisciplinary teams that worked together using the methods learned in the course to develop a solution to a specific case chosen earlier by the participants. The chosen case dealt with the Lofoten/Vesterålen region and its globally illustrative challenges related to aligning the needs of the ecosystems and key wildlife species, such as whales, against local livelihoods and industry, natural resource extraction, and sustainable tourism.

Outcomes that serve the different hubs of the society

The 3 teams managed to apply successfully what they learned, and they presented 3 solutions that were, in the opinion of the UN itself, viable and realistic. The UN even expressed their interest in following up with one of the solutions and sees the possibilities of its implementation into their own project.

In that sense, as explained by Dr. Ness and Dr. Målen, the course outcomes surpassed the expectations of a conventional university course in terms of being relevant to the participants, the university, and external stakeholders, the UN.

For the participants, it was a unique interdisciplinary learning opportunity. They acquired skills using innovative methods, they learnt how to work in interdisciplinary teams, built networks, and they had the chance to apply what they had learned in a context outside academia, which is a huge added value for this kind of courses.

As mentioned above, the course also fits to the UiB strategy and, as expressed by the vice-rector for innovation, was well-timed given the urgency of the chosen topic. In addition, what the participants have learned about preparing and writing an application could boost the financial aspect for the university by gaining more external grants. It is a solid and lovely mosaic, where the work done in academia is connected and needed outside and where stakeholders are investing in science and knowledge impact for the service of humanity.

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