Engaging Undergraduate Students in Socio-environmental Synthesis


David Hawthorne1, Mintesinot Jiru2, Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens3, Khadijat Rashid4, Caroline M. Solomon5, Paul Thiers6

1University of Maryland, Department of Entomology, College Park, MD 20742

2Coppin State University, Department of Natural Sciences, Baltimore, MD 21216

3Washington State University, School of Biological Sciences and School of the Environment, Vancouver, WA 98686

4Gallaudet University, Department of Business, Washington, DC 20002

5Gallaudet University, Department of Science, Technology and Mathematics, Washington, DC 20002

6Washington State University, School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vancouver, WA 98686

Corresponding Author: Caroline Solomon (

A key component to understanding and addressing environmental challenges is the acknowledgement that bio-physical and social science approaches are jointly required to find effective and sustainable solutions. Socio-environmental synthesis (SES) is one research agenda for achieving those goals (Palmer et al. 2016). With support of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), the modules published here in TIEE Volume 12 co-developed a basic architecture for medium-to-long duration instructional modules that introduce undergraduate students to some of the fundamentals of SES. Using this common architecture, each instructor (or pair of instructors) from four universities (Table 1) developed modules using the socio-environmental content and contexts relevant to their locations, courses and students. The goals of this SES teaching experiment were two-fold. First, these modules would provide effective pedagogical mechanisms for content-knowledge instruction and second, they would provide opportunities for development of important problem conceptualization and team-work skills. Development of the shared architecture for introducing socio-environmental synthesis to undergraduate students required identification of the key competencies needed to do SES. Through a series of workshops supported by SESYNC (Socio-Environmental Synthesis Education: Goals, Resources and Tools, June 2012 and June 2013) and numerous subsequent meetings among these instructors, a set of SES competencies were identified and refined (Table 2).

The shared architecture of the modules included the following elements:

  1. A systems approach to understanding the complexity of the socio-environmental challenge at the core of each module.
  2. A "jigsaw" meeting approach to simulate the different disciplinary identities and knowledge contributing to a team-based research agenda.
  3. Written and/or oral presentations with which the synthesis of diverse knowledge, perspectives and tools are integrated and presented to instructors and the class.

Module implementation varied by institution but all were guided by the same basic architecture, targeting the same SES competencies and containing assignments that were quite similar. All modules were pilot-tested and later refined based on assessment and feedback on pedagogy before being implemented for the second time.


Table 1: The modules from four different universities and description of their faculty and student demographics

The Chesapeake Bay & Poultry Farming: A socio-environmental perspective

The Anacostia River: A socio-environmental perspective
Gallaudet Univ.
Private liberal arts school serving deaf and hard-of-hearing students
  • Environmental Scientist
  • Economist
  • Elective Environmental Issues course
  • Jr/Sr biology & economics majors
Socio-environmental Synthesis Teaching Module:
Linking Biology and Political Science Courses to Assess Hydroelectric Dam Relicensing
Washington State Univ. Vancouver
Public research university serving non-traditional students (older, first generation, commuters)
  • Ecologist
  • Political Scientist
  • Required Intro. Bio. & Environmental Policy courses
  • Fr/So biology & Jr/Sr. policy majors
Understanding Causes of Reservoir water quality deterioration using Socio-environmental Synthesis approach Coppin Univ. Public HBCU serving primarily African-American students
  • Environmental Scientist
  • Elective course, “Earth and Space Science”
  • Jr/Sr science majors
Socio-environmental Synthesis: Jigsaw Projects for improving pollinator health on a college campus Univ. of Maryland College Park
Public research university serving diverse student body
  • Entomologist
  • Education Researcher
  • Elective course, “Pollinators in Crisis”
  • Non-majors, Fr-So-Jr-Sr


Table 2: SES competencies

1. Synthesis Inquiry and Critique Competencies
✔ Build arguments using evidence from disparate disciplines and domains
✔ Critique synthesis-based arguments
2. Epistemological and Collaborative Competencies
✔ Recognize her/his own epistemology
✔ Anticipate & accommodate different approaches and standards of evidence
3. Critical and Creative Thinking Competencies
✔ Borrow concepts, frameworks & metaphors from other fields
✔ See problems, not disciplines
4. Dynamic Systems Thinking Competency
✔ Use visualization to understand and describe a system/problem
✔ Grasp complex socio-ecological issues
5. Communication Competency
✔ Tailor arguments to audiences
✔ Listen with understanding across fields
6. Normative Literacy
✔ Evaluate normative claims
✔ Acknowledge & appreciate normative pluralism
7. Actionable Science Literacy
✔ Frame synthesis science for action
✔ Ask actionable science questions that involve stakeholder engagement



David Hawthorne, Mintesinot Jiru, Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, Khadijat Rashid, Caroline M. Solomon, and Paul Thiers. March 2017, posting date. Engaging Undergraduate Students in Socio-environmental SynthesisTeaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, Vol. 12: Commentary [online].