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Transdisciplinarity for Sustainability: A Unifying Framework for Navigating Transformational Learning Systems

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Engineering Engagement with Community

Tagged Division

Community Engagement Division

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Paper Authors


Linda Vanasupa California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Linda Vanasupa has been a professor of materials engineering at the California Polytechnic State University since 1991. She also serves as co-director of the Center for Sustainability in Engineering at Cal Poly. Her life's work is focused on creating ways of learning, living and being that are alternatives to the industrial era solutions--alternatives that nourish ourselves, one another and the places in which we live. Her Ph.D. and M.S. degrees are in materials science and engineering from Stanford University and her B.S. degree in metallurgical engineering from the Michigan Technological University.

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Carol J. Thurman Georgia Institute of Technology

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Dr. Carol Thurman serves as the Academic Assessment Manager for Georgia Tech’s Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain. She holds a doctorate in Educational Policy Studies with a concentration in Research, Measurement, and Statistics. Dr. Thurman's professional experience includes higher education academic and program assessment, program evaluation, project management, teaching K-12 both in the U.S. and internationally, teaching university research and statistics courses, and serving as a K-12 school district research specialist. Dr. Thurman’s research interests include transdisciplinary research approaches to understanding and addressing sustainability social issues that reside in the complex space.

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We began this work with an intent to create an assessment strategy for community-engaged learning focused on sustainability. Through reviewing existing approaches, we discovered that the salient learning modality for such a purpose-transdisciplinarity-differs profoundly from traditional engineering education settings. Further, this form of community-engaged learning offers an authentic setting to develop many of the integrated student outcomes stated in the new engineering accreditation criteria. We contend that effective transdisciplinary learning is a means to the oft-stated goal of systemic transformation in engineering education, particularly for sustainability aims. However, this complex, dynamic systems view of engineering education represents a radical departure from education-as-usual and thus requires a similarly radical departure from research- and assessment- -as-usual. It reflects a shift in the unit of analysis: from a singular focus on student learning outcomes to a broader view that captures learning at the transdisciplinary system level. It also requires a shift from assessing/judging student learning based on learning outcomes alone to that of navigating the learning process. This paper opens a dialogue on a compelling question for engineering education: How do we design and navigate dynamic systems of learning that themselves create sustainable communities? We suggest an approach that includes monitoring system-level properties rather than a singular focus on the learning at the individual level. A review of literature reveals nascent alignment amongst researchers on core sustainability competencies needed for student learning, however, there is no consensus on systems-level learning approaches. Based on a literature review and lived experiences, we offer a unifying framework through a systems-level lens for essential properties of assessing community-engaged learning for sustainability: holistic, participatory and adaptive. We also offer reflections on qualities of transdisciplinary research approaches that are coherent with complex dynamic systems and suggest future directions.

Vanasupa, L., & Thurman, C. J. (2018, June), Transdisciplinarity for Sustainability: A Unifying Framework for Navigating Transformational Learning Systems Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31154

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