Environmental Sciences Graduate Multidisciplinary Course: A Collaborative, Interdisciplinary, Socially Committed Project for Regional Sustainability

MEDELLÍN MILÁN, P.; NIETO CARAVEO, L.M.

The Environmental Sciences Graduate Multidisciplinary Course (MSc & DSc), includes research and formation in five areas: Environmental Assessment; Pollution Prevention and Control; Natural Renewable Resources Management; Environmental Health; and Environmental Management and Policies; in order to engage a wide range of disciplines in solutions to complex regional problems by teams of students with any and different professional backgrounds. Its 53 Professors come from nine different Faculties and Research Institutes of the University, in an institutional collaborative effort that share resources and make up tutorial teams to advice students’ thesis work in an interdisciplinary way. Present enrollment is close to 150 students (yearly average), doing either Master of Science; Doctor of Science; or Master of Science / International Mode (with double accreditation in México and Germany). Our purpose is to form students capable of working in multidisciplinary teams and to contribute to the transition to sustainability in communities and cities. 

Background

In the mid eighties a group of professors innovated doing interdisciplinary environmental research of social relevance (at the time, the words “environmental research” and “environmental education” in Latin America already included social, political, economical and environmental concerns). The leadership of this group envisioned an environmental interdisciplinary program of this sort, and started offering open courses to the community, until the opportunity was ripe for top support and the imagination of a good number of interested professors from many disciplines. This group of approximately 20 professors worked from the year 2000 and until a consensual proposal emerged in 2002, which was approved by the Directive Council (maximum authority of the University) as the Environmental Sciences Graduate Multidisciplinary Program (PMPCA in Spanish). Once the general structure of the curricula was agreed on, the most difficult agreement to reach was the four basic courses which would be thought to all incoming students of every professional formation during the first semester with the purpose of giving them a common base of communication which would allow them to work together in multidisciplinary teams to conceive questions and solutions to complex regional environmental problems, in a strong social and global contextual comprehension. A second one was the design of a “Multidisciplinary Seminar” conceived to have students work in multidisciplinary teams of students to achieve a proposal to solve an open complex problem in the region.

Our program had to start as a high quality academic degree and be recognized as such by the federal education authorities (PNP, for Programa Nacional de Posgrados) in order to be granted scholarships for our students and be able to grow and sustain. For this, our team had to push for internal rules innovations as well as for national policy innovations in order, for example, to engage professors already working in high quality disciplinary programs, something that was not allowed at the time by Conacyt accreditation rules. So far PMPCA has kept in the PNP list and has grown in size from a few students to the largest graduate program in our university and one of the largest in the country with this category.

Objectives

The PMPCA aims at forming high quality human resources through its masters and doctorate degrees, capable of working in research for the planning and solution of complex interdisciplinary regional problems in the national and global context, in order to contribute to the transition to sustainability in society at large.

Description

The PMPCA was established in 2002 as an innovative graduate multidisciplinary program that welcomes students from different and any disciplinary backgrounds to achieve master and doctors degrees in environmental sciences, aimed at planning and solving complex regional problems in its social, economical, political and environmental components, and contribute to the construction of sustainability.

Usually, graduate programs were associated to a Faculty. That was changed here in order to achieve interdisciplinariety, and it was born strongly associated to three Faculties: Medicine, Chemical Sciences and Engineering; and with collaboration with other three: Habitat, Agriculture, and Social Sciences and Humanities; and to three research institutes: Arid Zones Research, Geology, and Metallurgy. To work out this multiple association, a new office of the President of UASLP, the Agenda Ambiental, was to host PMPCA and perform the functions of general administration and academic administration; and the formal role played by the faculty’s authorities was played by the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.

As the purpose of the PMPCA was not to form generalists, but specialist with a wide comprehension of other disciplines and their interrelationship, in order to form professionals with the competence for interdisciplinary team work in complex problems, it has five areas of expertise: Environmental Assessment; Pollution Prevention and Control; Management of Natural Renewable Resources; Environmental Toxicology, and Environmental Management and Policies. Its curriculum includes a first semester of four basic courses, compulsory for all students; a second semester with two or three “area courses” which are important general courses of each one of the five areas, plus a Multidisciplinary Seminar (group work solution to complex regional problems) and thesis work, which ends with the presentation of a Thesis Seminar; a third semester with two more courses which can be “area courses” of “special topic courses”. These last ones are specialized enough to support the specific thesis research. At the end of the third semester the student presents a second Thesis Seminar on advances of his/her research. Multidisciplinary Seminar continues through the four semesters. A master student ends in the fourth semester presenting a graduating exam. A doctoral student continues at least one more year for a total of ten courses (lets say, one more per semester). The program is very flexible from the second semester on, and offers a total of approximately 65 different courses, so that practically every student has a different course selection after the second semester. In general, the program has a relatively low course work so that it can have a strong emphasis in research which carries 40% of the workload.

Graduates of the PMPCA are able to: Identify, analyze and characterize critical environmental problems, put forward and execute solution proposals for the identified environmental problems, do research and teaching in multidisciplinary groups and manage a diverse discourse. Its academic governing body is a 10-professors collegiate and representative group amongst faculties and areas of the PMPCA, and some decisions are also decentralized to the faculty of each one of the five areas, also in a collegiate way.

Results

The PMPCA has maintained a high quality level in the Mexican system, granted by Conacyt (National Council of Science and Technology), since its foundation eight years ago, and recently (2007), received international recognition as we won a DAAD-Conacyt agreement to establish a Environmental Sciences Master Program in collaboration with the Cologne University of Applied Sciences, with double degree, in México and Germany. Only one such agreement was granted to one pair of German-Mexican universities and, at UASLP, one more such program – in materials science – has been created under this model.

Each year between 40 and 50 students are accepted to the program, that has 51 professors with PhD from eight different Faculties and Research Institutes of the University and maintains a yearly enrollment of MSc and DSc students of over a 140 students, and graduates approximately 20 MSc and DSc total, in a two-to-one ratio. Since it inception in 2002, a total of 82 students have graduated. While many have continued their studies on a Doctorate or Posdoctorate level, the majority have gone to work in the government, private industry or to form companies of their own, thus spreading and applying the knowledge, practice and values of sustainability.

Innovative aspects

PMPCA is the first of its kind in our university and in Mexico: it is a collaborative program across the university faculties and facilities; it is multidisciplinary in its organization; it welcomes student from any professional/disciplinary formations; it aims at forming research professionals capable of working in multidisciplinary teams in complex, regional, open problems, with a strong social and ethical commitment; it aims at doing interdisciplinary research; it applies educational innovation, as only through a flexible, project and problem based education, can complex problems be approached. It aims at recognizing local traditions, social organization and ecology. Furthermore, it is the only international master program funded by Conacyt (Mexico).

Closure

During the first years of the program, our colleagues at other Mexican universities asked us frequently about the “secret” or our success in establishing this collaborative program. What surprised them was the capacity to gather professors and resources of many kinds from different academic entities, be them faculties or institutes; and then, of course, about other innovative characteristics of the program.

We used to tell them that, of course, there is no simple answer or “secret”. Many of the conditions that allowed the success of this initiative took years, and big efforts to build up, and many of these conditions where somewhat casuistic, particularly the existence of the required leaderships. After sharing widely our “secret” many have tried unsuccessfully to reproduce the experience, and many would not even try. We will not describe or discuss these conditions here, as it would be quite extensive and the subject of other paper, although in general we would say that the national prestige and formal collegiate style of our university were essential.

The Agenda Ambiental communication activities and partnerships have been important for the popularity of the PMPCA (http://ambiental.uaslp.mx/pmpca/), including our website (http://ambiental.uaslp.mx/), conceived as an information tool, but also as a service to academics in the environmental and sustainability field, as well as in education. Furthermore, the authors were founders and have kept active relations and personal leadership with the Mexican Consortium of University Programs in Environment and Sustainability (Complexus, http://www.complexus.org.mx/) and with the National Academy of Environmental Education (ANEA, http://anea.org.mx/), and frequently organize or support their annual meetings and conferences, as well as their websites. The National Association of Mexican Institutions of Higher Education (ANUIES, http://www.anuies.mx/) has seconded our drive to include environmental indicators in the assessment of quality of HE institutions; and recently the Ministry of Education(SEP, http://www.sep.gob.mx/), included this parameters in its 2010 assessment of HEI evaluation.

References

About the author

Pablo Medellín Milán is professor, Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, México. Nowadays Coordinator of the Environmental Agenda of the UASLP. E-mail: pmm@uaslp.mx; Web Site: http://ambiental.uaslp.mx Postal address: Manuel Nava 201, Zona Universitaria, San Luis Potosí SLP 78210; Mexico.

L. M. NIeto Caraveo is professor, Autonomous University of San Luís Potosí. Nowadays.,academic coordinator of the UASLP

Partners

  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya
  • Ajuntament de Barcelona