A resource for inter-disciplinary teaching of sustainability issues

The project was developed by Niki Harré, Andrea Mead, Penny Brothers, Manuel Vallee and Joe Fagan – a team of academics from Psychology, Chemistry, Sociology and the school of the Environment at the University of Auckland. Sustainability often requires interdisciplinarity; this project details how that can be achieved in written assignments.

These resources might be useful to teachers of sustainability, teachers of academic writing and those interested in inter-disciplinary teaching.

The project was supported by the SEED Fund grants for 2017 and was featured on the The Faculty of Science Sustainability Network webpage.

Project background

According to Nikki Harré the aim of the project was to teach two iterations of an interdisciplinary teaching unit on the global clothing industry. In Semester One (March-June) 2017, this involved Stage One Psychology (PSYCH 108: Individual, Social and Applied Psychology) and Stage Two Sociology students (SOCIOL 229 Environmental Sociology) and in Semester Two it involved Stage One Psychology and Stage Two Chemistry students (CHEM 260 Introduction to Green Chemistry). Each class watched a documentary about the clothing industry, called The True Cost, and received lectures in their home course.

Students then did presentations to students from the other course on what their discipline could contribute to understanding and improving the industry. Students were required to do a written assignment in their home course. Chemistry students wrote a reflection on what they had learnt, a type of writing that science students do not usually experience. Sociology students wrote about the meanings, and the social and environmental impact, of an item of clothing they own; and Psychology students wrote a research report on data gathered from a pre-test survey conducted with the participating courses. We also aimed to make a video that described the project, and conduct an evaluation with the help of graduate students in Psychology.

Project reflection

In terms of how the project contributed to students’ learning, the evaluation found that students’ knowledge of the social and environmental impacts of the clothing industry had increased considerably after the teaching unit, and that they intended to consider these impacts in future clothing purchases. Informal conversations with students also indicated that some were deeply affected by the teaching and particularly the impact of clothing manufacture on workers. Students commented favourably on the interactions with peers in other courses. It was also clear they had learnt a lot through applying their knowledge to a real world issue and needing to teach students who were unfamiliar with the language and concepts of their discipline.

In terms of how the project contributed to our own learning, as a whole it was refreshing and inspiring – we all enjoyed working with each other and connecting or reconnecting with different disciplines. There were many logistical hurdles to overcome and we were reminded of the goodwill needed to teach across courses and faculties.

We will be running the teaching case-study again in 2018. We have also been developing a proposal for a sustainability module of three linked courses that would be open to students in both Science and Arts. This project has reminded us of the importance of working across disciplines and how the natural and social sciences are able to complement each other. A sustainability module would allow students to develop the skills touched on by our case-study to a much greater extent.

Nikki reflected that “what was unexpected for us as teachers was how much we learnt about the disciplines we were working alongside. The peer-to-peer teaching by students from different courses provided a fascinating insight into the ‘other’ discipline.”

For more information about the University of Auckland’s ‘Sustainable Fashion Series’ for 2017 see here.

Project resources


As Nikki Harré explained, all the objectives were met and above is the completed video from the Faculty of Science Sustainability Network webpage.

A writing assignment created by Manuel Vallee for Sociology 229 (Environmental Sociology), which participated in this project, can be seen here.

Another writing assignment, one created for Psychology 108 (Individual, Social and Applied Psychology) as part of this project can be seen here,

And another assignment created for Chemistry 260 (Introduction to Green Chemistry) can be viewed here.

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