The Living Lab: Interdisciplinary, problem-based learning in the city

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Credit: Pixabay, shilmar, CC0

The Edinburgh Living Lab programme is part of the Edinburgh Futures Institute, (EFI), which is building links between the university and the city to facilitate long-term multi-disciplinary ‘research in the wild’. The Living Lab programme is also working on how to support more engaging and diversified student learning. We see potential in credit bearing courses that draw together a set of educational approaches, broadly termed ‘experiential learning’, which aim not only to benefit students, but also their teachers, the city we live in, and the University’s relationship to the city. This is inspired by insights from studies of science technology and innovation (STIS) into the ‘messiness’ of real-life innovation, and from approaches in studio-based design education.

We first developed our Living Lab practice with three iterations of a post-graduate course in the interdisciplinary programme, Design Informatics, with Dr Arno Verhoeven (ECA) and Prof Ewan Klein (Informatics), supported by a PTAS grant. Students worked on challenges set by City Neighbourhood partnerships*, including how to increase use of parks, encourage cycling and walking in the city centre, and improving recycling rates. The goal was not necessarily to produce a ‘solution’ but to problematise an issue in a novel way using data and design. In 2016 Ewan and a TA, Alyssa Alcorn, developed a level 8 cross-school course, Data, Design and Society, on the topic ‘Food and the University’. This course specifically focussed on interdisciplinary, problem-based learning, and was run in partnership with the Social Responsibility and Sustainability department. For the second semester of 2018-9, this course has been redeveloped by myself and Morgan Currie, as ‘Data Design and the City’. This year, the course will focus on upcycling and the circular economy, and is open to all first and second year students.

In these one-semester courses, the central mode of learning is based on a research and design challenge that is conducted in small, mentored teams drawn from different disciplinary backgrounds. A key element of our approach, and of problem-based learning, is the choice of an ‘ill defined’ problem, often termed a ‘wicked problem’. These problems oblige students to develop their own problem definition capabilities, and make their own prioritisation of relevant knowledge. Challenges are decided with our city partners (e.g. the NHS, council departments or NGOs) and are, by their very nature, not easily ‘solveable’ within a single discipline or organisation. We try to choose topics that are accessible to students, and do not raise too many issues of ethical access.

This approach brings a number of other educational benefits and challenges, for example:

  1. Students are motivated by having to engage with the ‘real world’ and present their ideas to outside stakeholders.
  2. Students have more direct access to the messiness of the problem though the external stakeholders. For example, one year the students took part in a community engagement conference, working with residents, activists and local politicians, presenting their ideas, and having their eyes opened to local planning politics.

By bringing together students who would otherwise be only educated within a single discipline, they start to develop a number of higher-level cognitive and social skills, in particular, identifying and coping with epistemological differences, and developing trans-disciplinary perspectives. They also learn to value their own knowledge and perspectives, and understand what each team member brings to a collaborative working group.

One of the challenges for teachers is how to provide the necessary support and appropriate scaffolding to students, when we remove both the disciplinary learning framework and the clearly defined end goal, and then push them out of the classroom to engage with ‘real’ people. To address this, we adapted the UK Design Council’s ‘Double Diamond’ process, which provides a structure of activities in an iterative design and exploration cycle. This specific course design approach, along with the tools we use for scaffolding, the mentoring and reflective practices, and the required institutional support, will be explored in more detail in a future Teaching Matters blog post.

We will be evaluating the Data Design and the City course (which is still open for recruitment) with colleagues from IAD. We are also supporting the development of a community of practice for lecturers currently using or wanting to develop more problem-based and interdisciplinary learning opportunities. We hope that the EFI will also take the lead in ensuring all students are afforded this type of learning in each year of their study.

*Supported by Sally Kerr of the council Open Data programme. 

More information is available in the IAD booklet: Interdisciplinary modules and the Edinburgh Living Lab: Interdisciplinary research and teaching and the associated challenges and opportunities for implementation

James Stewart

James Stewart is a lecturer in Science Technology and Innovation studies, and part of the Edinburgh Living Lab team. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesks and @edilivinglab.

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