Building bridges across disciplines and developing learning-action networks to advance ecology and sustainability studies
The Tropical Conservation and Development program (TCD) fosters collaborative learning and action by faculty, students, alumni and partners around the globe. The roots of TCD go back over 30 years of evolving interdisciplinary initiatives at the University of Florida (UF). Housed in UF’s Center for Latin American Studies, TCD today draws on the participation of 10 core faculty and more than 100 faculty affiliates and 85-100 students across 25 academic units across campus. These individuals are united by our desire to bridge theory and practice to advance biodiversity conservation, sustainable resource use and human well-being in the tropics. TCD is not a degree granting program. Rather, TCD offers an interdisciplinary certificate and informal learning opportunities to students in Master's or Ph.D. programs. One of the Program’s goals is to complement the knowledge and skill sets that students develop in their home departments, by offering interdisciplinary coursework, field experiences and practical skills necessary to address multi-scalar and multi-disciplinary challenges. Here we outline how TCD has 1) become a bridge across disciplines on campus and 2) has effectively built learning-action networks, which are critical to developing problem-centered research in social-ecological systems.
As the work place becomes more interdisciplinary, global, and collaborative, the challenge for Universities is to prepare graduate students to be not only technically proficient, but also broadly trained, and capable of working in teams. Most TCD alumni find professional jobs outside of academia working in NGOs, development or government agencies, and research institutes. The skills set of a conventional disciplinary graduate student working alone to investigate a narrowly defined research topic do not match well with the skills needed by conservation and development professionals. These professionals need to be able to identify and solve problems collaboratively, which means teamwork, communication, and interdisciplinary analyses. The long history of dialogue among a very diverse group of faculty and administrators was central to developing a shared vision and commitment to implement an interdisciplinary program designed to promote effective leadership in conservation and sustainable development. Key components include enabling individuals to think in terms of linked social-ecological systems, work in teams, communicate in nonacademic formats, manage conflict, and reflect critically on their own perspectives and actions. The challenges and opportunities to advance sustainability studies reside in our professional and personal diversity, our practice of shared governance, and our professional network which links practitioners, scholars, and students.