Developing Cohort Challenges: An Innovative Program for Training Graduate Students to Work in Transdisciplinary Teams

Anna Maria Marshall, Jill Heemstra, John J. Classen, Erin Cortus, Jacek Koziel, Deanne Meyer, Anand Padmanabhan, Samuel P Reed, Riveraine Walters

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


“Wicked problems” in science and engineering demand transdisciplinary approaches drawing on multiple disciplines and perspectives, yet we continue to conduct graduate training largely within the confines of a single discipline. The INFEWS-ER is an NSF-funded virtual resource center designed to provide transdisciplinary graduate education to students working on problems at the intersection of food-energy-water systems. Relying on a conceptual framework that identifies several competencies - the skills, knowledge, and pedagogical methods that are vital for successful transdisciplinary teamwork - we designed an approach that capitalizes on faculty expertise, student interests, and teamwork. In this paper, we offer a model of an innovative approach to training graduate students - Cohort Challenges offered by the INFEWS-ER. Specifically, we describe the fundamental elements that each Cohort Challenge shared: a broad theme related to a wicked problem that gives graduate students the flexibility and independence to formulate their own research questions and design their own projects; training in competencies for conducting transdisciplinary research; mentorship from faculty and peer experts outside their departments and outside their disciplines; and collaborative learning in a virtual environment. We also focus on important dimensions of the process of conducting a Cohort Challenge, including intentional team-building practices that foster trust and accountability among participants; meaningful stakeholder engagement throughout the research process, from design to sharing final products; and learning to communicate about science across varied audiences. We also describe some of the final projects the Challenges produced, including journal articles, conference presentations, and social media campaigns, all outside of the students' more traditional course of study. We conclude by offering several final observations about the opportunities and obstacles to successful Cohort Challenges, as well as our future plans to support others who want to design and deliver this mode of graduate education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Aug 23 2022
Event129th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: Excellence Through Diversity, ASEE 2022 - Minneapolis, United States
Duration: Jun 26 2022Jun 29 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© American Society for Engineering Education, 2022


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