Learning to Integrate Across Natural and Social Sciences

Mar 21, 2013

Solutions to difficult problems at the interface of the environment and human society require the synthesis of diverse types of information from natural and social sciences. Today’s undergraduate and graduate students must develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities that allow them to undertake such synthesis efforts and successfully engage in interdisciplinary efforts to solve socio-environmental problems. As part of its mission, SESYNC is committed to supporting research to advance understanding of the competencies that are critical for socio-environmental synthesis, including the ability to integrate knowledge from disparate domains.

This RFP seeks proposals that build upon existing knowledge from various disciplines to advance our understanding of 1) how undergraduate and graduate students learn to integrate data, concepts, techniques, approaches, tools, perspectives, theories, etc. from natural and social sciences to understand environmental problems and inform solutions, and 2) pedagogies that support the development of this cognitive ability in a socio-environmental context at the undergraduate or graduate level.   

We invite teams to submit proposals for synthesis research to advance understanding of student learning processes and pedagogies regarding interdisciplinary integration, particularly across natural and social sciences in the context of environmental problems. Many types or combinations of synthesis approaches are possible, including for example: synthesis and evaluation of existing data, integration of knowledge to develop new theoretical frameworks, or connection of education theory/practice with other fields (e.g., artificial intelligence).  Synthesis research activities should emphasize the process of teaching or learning at the undergraduate or graduate level rather than focus exclusively on content; proposals that include course content development must be framed within a larger process focus. As part of the proposed work, we encourage all teams to consider how to assess the ability to integrate across disciplines.

We hope to catalyze collaborations across a broad range of areas. Thus, teams might include experts from domains traditionally engaged in social and environmental research; learning, behavioral, and cognitive sciences; information and computer sciences; and education-related disciplines. Anticipated team products are scholarly publications, although other types of products, such as novel databases, may also emerge from this work. Because a major goal of this RFP is to produce research that informs classroom practice, educational policies, and curriculum and program development, we also encourage teams to consider the “actionability” of the project results (i.e., implementation and diffusion of findings and of emerging pedagogies).

Below, we provide examples of questions that could be addressed. These examples are meant only to illustrate the diversity of potential topics related to developing the ability to integrate knowledge across natural and social sciences, rather than defining the full extent of relevant topics. 

  • What is the role of disciplinary learning in the development of the ability to synthesize socio-environmental data, concepts, approaches, etc.? 
  • What are the critical barriers and opportunities for synthesizing knowledge across natural science and social science disciplines with respect to environmental issues?  What pedagogies can help students overcome these barriers?
  • “Knowledge structures” (“mental models”, “conceptual frameworks”, or “schemas”) refer to the way knowledge in a domain is organized and meaning is created. How do knowledge structures differ between natural and social sciences, and do these differences create barriers to interdisciplinary work? How can knowledge structures that facilitate the integration of knowledge across natural and social science domains be developed?
  • What particular cognitive skills can help students identify meaningful patterns or integrate knowledge across disciplines?  What pedagogies can help develop these cognitive skills? 
  • How can cyber-learning tools facilitate the instruction and learning of interdisciplinary integration across natural and social sciences? 
  • How do students learn to use and integrate large and diverse data sets? What are the challenges and opportunities for developing this competency, especially for integration of data sets across natural and social science disciplines?
  • How might the fundamental skills and competencies underlying interdisciplinary integration be reliably assessed in individuals?

For questions about this RFP or the submission process, please contact: education @sesync.org

Repko, A.F. 2008. Assessing Interdisciplinary Learning Outcomes. Academic Exchange Quarterly. Vol. 12, pg.171

Submission Instructions: 

Proposal Criteria

Pursuit applications will be ranked with regard to their:

  • suitability to the described Theme;
  • focus on fundamental research questions” (i.e., those with implications that go well beyond a single place or point in time to provide new insights with broad applicability)
  • novelty, creativity, and/or urgency of the proposed activities;
  • feasibility to produce meaningful synthetic research including identifying and showing ability to access appropriate data;
  • potential to inform classroom practice, educational policies, and curriculum and program development;
  • qualifications, appropriate diversity of scientific backgrounds, and experience of the proposed participants;
  • inclusion of diversity to broaden the participation of underrepresented groups with respect to gender, ethnicity, disability and geographic location; and
  • an explanation of why SESYNC is the most appropriate way to support the activity.

What to Include

SESYNC Applications are composed of two parts to be submitted via SESYNC's online submission system: 1. an online coversheet submitted through a website form, and 2. a PDF which is attached to your application. These two parts are described below:

Online Cover sheet (do not include in application PDF)

  • Descriptive Title or Proposed Pursuit ("Pursuit...")
  • Short Title (25 characters max)
  • Name and contact information for up to two PIs
  • Project Summary (250 words) - appropriate for the public; posted on the SESYNC web site
  • Keywords (up to 5 keywords different from those used in the title)
  • Proposed start and end dates; number and duration of meetings as well as the estimated number of participants
  • Potential conflicts of interest with members of the SESYNC External Advisory Board or Leadership

Include the following in your uploaded PDF using single spacing, 12-pt type fonts, and 1 inch margins.

Main body (5 pages max including references)

  • Problem statement - Clear and concise statement of the synthesis project to be undertaken and how it relates to the theme, including its direct or indirect contributions to actionable socio-environmental science related to the Theme. As appropriate, specify the novelty, creativity, or urgency of the proposal.
  • Applicants are encouraged to include a conceptual framework for the study. Graphical and/or textual formats may be used to show how the synthesis approach and various components of the work are linked together to address the problem of interest.
  • Proposed activities.
  • Brief description of the proposed synthesis activities and why they are appropriate for funding by SESYNC as opposed to another funding program such as NSF's core programs.  
  • A description of intended data and any permissions needed for their use.  If possible please list the actual datasets that will be used to initiate the synthesis effort.
  • Metrics of success: What metrics are the most appropriate for evaluating the success of the proposed project (e.g., papers, policy-directed efforts, databases, models, development of new resources, etc)? If successful, who are the non-peer audiences that would most likely use the knowledge or tools developed?

Potential Participants (1 page)

  • Please complete a table with the following column headers for all participants and include in your application
    • Last Name
    • First Name
    • Affiliation (include department)
    • Website address
    • Primary Area of Expertise
    • Secondary Area of Expertise
    • Confirmed (Y/N)
    • Prior Collaboration with Applicants (Y/N)
  • Diversity Statement - Include a paragraph describing the aspects of diversity in your participant list. Diversity is considered in all its aspects, social and scientific, including gender, ethnicity, scientific field, disability status, career stage, geography and type of home institution.

Other Information (1 page)

  • If applicable, briefly describe any anticipated needs for Cyberinfrastructure (CI) support. This should include descriptions of new data sets or software/databases to be developed; high performance computing needs; data aggregation or fusion required; and types of visualization.  Applicants should review SESYNC's IT and Data Sharing policies and are encouraged to contact SESYNC CI staff prior to submission if the project’s needs are beyond the scope of services outlined in these documents.
  • Work plan with budgetary needs: this is not in dollars, but do provide: 1) numbers of trips by year to SESYNC (broken down by number of US domestic and international participants and days of local support) and 2) other anticipated support. SESYNC provides neither honoraria nor stipends for participants unless they are in residence as a visiting scientist for 2 months or longer.

Short CV of the Pursuit Leads (2 pages for each)

  • Do not include talks, society memberships, or papers in preparation.


The University of Maryland is an Equal Opportunity Employer
Minorities and Women Are Encouraged to Apply

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