Sustainability Science

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 493–502 | Cite as

Action research workshop for transdisciplinary sustainability science

  • G. Tejedor
  • J. SegalasEmail author
Case Report
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Sustainability Science Innovation and Capacity Development


The Research Institute for Sustainability Science and Technology under the Master degree in Sustainability Science and Technology organises the course action research workshop on Science and Technology for Sustainability (5 ECTS). The authors have been coordinating the course during the academic years 13/14, 14/15 and 15/16. The purpose of the workshop is to put together civil society organisations, local administrations, students and educators to collaboratively undertake responsible research, performing transdisciplinary learning environments and by an action research framework, to answer questions such as: Who are we researching for? Who profits from our research? What are the impacts of our research? Which methodologies and tools should be used when dealing with sociotechnical sustainability challenges? Students work on real projects, related to local sustainability problems, represented by a community entity (Service learning and Campus Lab). Action research methodology is used with a two-cycle approach. In each real-life project, students, faculty and stakeholders are asked to follow the action–reflexion process of action research projects: Action 1—Jointly defining: Project purpose; Customer and interest; Involved actors; Reflexion 1—Students define: research question, initial situation, needed additional information, action Strategy, Tasks planning and distribution: Action 2—Items returning and discussing with stakeholders, Reflexion 2—Revising and reformulating. Having now run the workshop three times, we can conclude that: first, students realised the significance of framing an investigation under a research methodological framework that allows bringing research to the community, enhancing transdisciplinarity in any initiative or action in sustainability science. They set out the importance of some topics and the difficulty to hold them. Second, the formulation of the problem became one of the most arduous tasks in the process; difficulties were mainly related to the perception of the problem from distinct community group motivations. Third, interaction and communication with stakeholders and the recognition of their role was problematic as engineering students are not usually trained to work in wicked problems nor accompany stakeholders during the whole process. Finally, it is relevant to highlight that during the process students faced conflict and frustrating situations both within their team and with stakeholders. To help tackle this problem, an Emotional Intelligence module was introduced in the workshop which proved useful in helping students to solve some paralysing situations, which could otherwise have stopped the progress of the project. We suggest that engineering students need specific training in transdisciplinary research and in conflict resolution, to avoid collapsing in frustration when dealing with real transdisciplinary sustainability transitions.


Transdisciplinary education Learning service Sustainability Science education Emotional Intelligence education 


Sustainability issues are widely recognised as wicked problems (Yearworth 2016), which should not be considered as problems to be solved, but as conditions to be governed (Seager et al. 2012). There is a general agreement on the need to reform scientific expertise, as it is required to deal with sustainability challenges, by developing new ways of knowledge production and decision-making. In that sense, Sterling (2005) maintains that the nature of sustainability requires a fundamental change of epistemology, and therefore, of education. Inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to knowledge emphasise the irreducible complexity of phenomena, whose interactions cannot be formulated to zero-sum. Epistemological structures are disrupted and transcended to progressively reflect and gain understanding. Researchers become representatives of an “epistemic community” in which certain knowledge has been constructed (Knorr-Cetina 2007; Klein 2008; Vilsmaier 2015). In relation to technological education, the Barcelona Declaration (2004) approved during the engineering education in sustainable development (EESD) conference in 2004 declares that today’s engineers must be able to:
  • Understand how their work interacts with society and the environment, locally and globally, to identify potential challenges, risks and impacts.

  • Understand the contribution of their work in different cultural, social and political contexts and take those differences into account.

  • Work in multidisciplinary teams, to adapt current technology to the demands imposed by sustainable lifestyles, resource efficiency, pollution prevention and waste management.

  • Apply a holistic and systemic approach to solving problems, and have the ability to move beyond the tradition of breaking reality down into disconnected parts.

  • Participate actively in the discussion and definition of economic, social and technological policies, to help redirect society towards more sustainable development.

  • Apply professional knowledge according to deontological principles and universal values and ethics.

  • Listen closely to the demands of citizens and other stakeholders and let them have a say in the development of new technologies and infrastructures.

The Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC Barcelona Tech), aware of the new competences that engineers should have, offers a master degree in Sustainability Science and Technology. The aim of the master’s degree is to provide advanced training in sustainable human development that enables students to understand the complex interaction between society, technology, the economy and the environment, so that they can tackle the social and environmental challenges inherent to sustainability: climate change, the depletion of natural resources, North–South imbalances, environmental justice, etc. This master degree trains students to become entrepreneurial professionals and agents of change for sustainability who will, depending on their specialisation, design and assess global, sustainable solutions for the uncertain, complex scenario in which we live. They take a transdisciplinary approach and ensure scientific and technical rigour in the diverse cultural and professional contexts in which they work.

The action research workshop on Sustainability Science and Technologies is one of the courses within this Master. The following sections explain the learning environment and the challenges and lessons learnt when organising such a course, as well as the learning results obtained by students.

Action research workshop on Sustainability Science and Technologies course

The Action research workshop on Sustainability Science and Technologies (ARW) is a course within the Master of Sustainability Science and Technology offered by Barcelona Tech University. It is a 5 ECTS (European Credit transfer System) course, which uses constructive and community oriented learning which has shown to be the most efficient way to train students in sustainability science competences (Segalas et al. 2006, 2010). In this sense, action research has gained a growing acceptance over recent decades in educational and non-school settings, as a form of research that emphasises ‘grassroots’ knowledge (Noffke 2009).

Goals and learning outcomes

The purpose of the workshop is to put together civil society organisations, local administrations, students and educators to collaboratively undertake responsible research, using transdisciplinary action research methodologies, to answer questions such as: Who are we researching for? Who profits from our research? What are the impacts of our research? Which methodologies and tools should be used when dealing with sociotechnical sustainability challenges?

When finishing the course students will have been trained in the following competences.
  • To know and understand the research paradigms (positivist, interpretive, critical theory and pragmatism) on which the research theories, methodology, and methods are based.

  • To be able to choose the most suitable research paradigm to tackle a real sustainability challenge.

  • To be able to work in transdisciplinary research settings.

  • To know, understand and be able to apply the action research methodology and research tools (quantitative and qualitative) in real-life contexts.

  • To understand how their work interacts with society and the environment, locally and globally, to identify potential challenges, risks and impacts.

  • To reflect on the results of the research process and the research process itself in order to understand the social dynamics that appear when applying a transdisciplinary approach in real sustainability challenges.

Course organisation

Research paradigms and action research methodology

The course is organised around five areas (Fig. 1): research paradigms, action research methodologies, Dimensions of Action Research, Research tools and Real projects.
Fig. 1

Workshop in action research scheme

First students are faced with different research paradigms (Table 1) and their features to facilitate their reflection on the research that they have/are/will apply in their work as researchers. This is necessary because most students come from a technological education background and hold a bachelor or master degree in engineering or architecture, and they usually only have been working with the positivist research paradigm which, when working with sustainability challenges with embedded social issues, is normally not the most appropriate (Martens 2006).
Table 1

Four scientific paradigms (Sobh and Perry, 2005)





Critical theory



Reality is real and apprehensible

Multiple local and specific “constructed” realities

“Virtual” reality shaped by social, economic, ethnic, political, cultural, and gender values, crystallised over time

Reality is “real” but only imperfectly and probabilistically apprehensible and so triangulation from many sources is required to try to know it


Findings true—researcher is objective by viewing reality through a “one-way mirror”

Crating finding—researcher is a “passionate participant” within the world being investigated

Value mediated findings—researcher is a “transformative intellectual” who changes the social world within which participants live

Findings probably true—researcher is value-aware and needs to triangulate any perceptions he or she is collecting

Common methodologies

Mostly concerned with a testing of theory. Thus mainly quantitative methods such as: survey, experiments, and verification of hypotheses

In-depth unstructured interviews, participant observation, action research, and grounded theory research

Action research and participant observation

Mainly qualitative methods such as case studies and convergent interviews

Next, students are trained in action research methodologies. Starting with definitions (Wallace 1987; Edwards and Talbot 2014; Carr and Kemmis 2009; Kemmis 1985) and its main features (Whitehead and McNiff 2002; Noffke 2009) which can be summed up as:
  • All the participants have something to contribute and to learn.

  • Participants as co-researchers and co-learners, including the researcher.

  • Knowledge and theory are inseparable from practice.

  • The main purpose is the improvement of a real situation or problem.

  • Reflection and action are two core elements.

  • The whole learning-by-doing process is what counts.

Once students are familiar with the main characteristics of action research, they learn about the main types of action research: (i) participatory action research (Baum et al. 2006); (ii) action learning (Revans 2011; Kember 2000); (iii) critical action research (Tripp 1990) and (iv) collaborative inquiry (Coughlan and Coghlan 2011). Students study their main features, pros and cons, methodological approaches and examples.

Then, students are introduced to the three dimensions of action research (Noffke 2009): personal, professional and political (Fig. 2). The construct of “dimensions” was derived from the historical study, Noffke (1997) made in the field of action research, as a way to understand the different emphases on the development of action research in education, time and again deeply connected to social movements.
Fig. 2

Dimensions in action research

Even though being aware of the political dimension is also embedded in the other two, Noffke proposes the professional dimension as a way of enhancing professional quality; the personal dimension in relation to personal growth and the collaborative nature of the work; and the political in the embodied visions of change, often against existing lines of power, in which we have to work.

These conceptualizations of action research allow students to position themselves as researchers when tackling a sustainability challenge in terms of research paradigm that may guide their inquiry, action research methodology that best fits the purpose of their research and underlying assumptions on the dimensions of their research practice.

Finally, students are trained in qualitative, quantitative and mixed research tools and methods typically used in action research: Conceptual maps, questionnaires, interviews, backcasting, complexity and network analysis, etc.

At this point, students are ready to apply the action research methodology (Fig. 3), following the action research loop of analysingplanning–acting–evaluating–reflecting in three cycles to frame the problem, intervene and evaluate the intervention.
Fig. 3

Action research cycles

(Adapted from Coghlan and Brannick, 2014)

The following section describes the projects that have been carried out during the 3 years this course has taken place.

Transdisciplinary approach

Some specific course characteristics are related to three main aspects of transdisciplinarity, which bring inter- and transdisciplinary epistemology to the student’s work (Vilsmaier 2015), namely (Lang et al. 2012; Scholz 2011):
  • Transition of relevant real-life societal problems, with society.

  • Crossing boundaries for mutual learning processes on equal footing.

  • Knowledge co-creation and integration to achieve robust knowledge (solution-oriented, socially robust, and transferable).

First of all, different disciplines were combined to build the best way to perform the action in performing teams and research with societal individuals or groups (municipality technicians, citizens, practitioners, elderly, etc.).

In these mutual learning processes, in which ways of advancing research were built collaboratively (methods, spaces, tempos, target groups), the cultivation of many cognitive skills such as differentiating, reconciling and synthesising is performed. The reflexive, collaborative, method-driven framework implies the promotion of the student’s interpersonal and intrapersonal learning, in which the attempt to converge at every turn requires the development of communication, interaction and action skills.

Finally, the common generation and integration of experiential knowledge and awareness of the participants in the research teams, results in fostering a sense of self-authorship and a situated, partial and perspectival notion of knowledge that they can use to respond to complex questions, issues or problems. “Truth” is situated, perspectival and discursive and informs and is informed by the team’s own sense of self-authorship (Haynes 2002).

Three years of training

The course was born from the convergence of two former courses: Interdisciplinary workshop and Sustainable Technology Innovation (STI) seminar, which used constructive and community oriented learning. The relationship with “real-life” projects as a powerful aspect was identified in the Interdisciplinary workshop, but it was still missing a methodological basis. Moreover, STI clearly showed its enormous potential to bring social needs to the world of ideas, beyond a learning space. STI had also a strong methodology aspect, appreciated by students. In this sense, both needs were clustered to perform a course that went deeper into research methodologies, with a strong Td approach, to work on real-life projects, with a sustainability science perspective.

The first year students of the action research workshop also participated in the STI seminar (, so that both the subject and the real-life projects developed were shared.

The course pivots around current sustainability relevant topics, broadly related to unsustainability aspects which are analysed in study real-life projects in local real situations, needs or challenges. Table 2 shows the general topics for each course, organisations who lead their own real-life projects and the research question for each of them.
Table 2

Summary of the research projects process, research tools used and results



Real-life projects

Research question

Research tools



 Sustainable clothing and slow fashion

Clean Clothes Campaign (SL)

Spanish fashion in Morocco

What a local clothing company can do to minimise labour exploitation risk, when pushed to find suppliers in Morocco?

Literature review, surveys

Backcasting report


Slow Fashion Spain (SL)

A local booming sustainable clothing market

What are barriers and challenges faced by sustainable fashion initiatives in current market?

Literature review, surveys

Backcasting report


 Energy poverty in Catalonia

Energy Bank Association BE-Municipalities Premià/Sabadell (SL)

Detection of motivations to participate in the BE in Premià

What are the factors that influence the decision to join or not the driver group of BE?

Surveys, interview

Clusters analysis


Phase 1 of implementation of the Energy Bank in Sabadell

What key factors that encouraged real participation in a local energy programme can be used for BE?


Report on online poll

 Energy inefficiency in public buildings-UPC

Office of Sustainability OGSIO-UPC (CLab)

Analysis of communication networks in the performance of POEs organisation

Does the current organisational structure of the POEs, or does not, influence on the obtained results?

Surveys, interview

Report on Network Analysis


Reporting server “orphan building”a energy consumption

Which part of servers’ consumption can be attributed to information management and which to use? How can their energy consumption be reduced?

Surveys, interview



 Energy poverty in Catalonia

Energy BE–Premià (SL)

Phase 2 of BE implementation in Premià: private sector

What affordable and sustainable offer could facilitate the organisations involvement to BE?

Focus groups

Strategy approach design

 Gas Geopolitics

OdG—Debt Observatory in Globalisation (SL)

MIDCAT, huge construction of a mega-pipeline for gas interconnection France–Spain

What is the capacity of this civil organised campaign facing to maximise transparency and public accountability?

Data analysis, surveys

Policy paper


Gas imports of the Port of Barcelona

What is the city responsibility on the perpetuation of fuel energy model based on natural gas?

Data analysis, surveys

Policy paper

 Communities for energy performance

UPC Energia 2020 (CLab)

Energy Hackathon design for developing sustainable energy projects at UPC

What kind of activity could be proposed to practice sustainable energy on campus?

Focus groups, interviews, pilot

Guide: 1st UPC Energy Hackaton

 UPC’s water management teaching

EWB—Engineers Without Borders (SL)

What kind of water management is promoted at UPC?

Does the curriculum and UPC research respond to ensuring the human right to water?

Surveys, interview, network analysis

Mapping of relationships

SL service learning, CLab campus lab

aThis “Orphan building” is where the UPC servers are located. High consumption of servers masks the efforts of energy saving, causing no one feels responsible for energy optimization

Organisations are called on for collaboration and they bring their current demands to be developed jointly by teams of students, professionals, faculty and researchers. Participating organisations come from the UPC itself and from civil society and collaboration has been performed under Campus Lab and Service learning, respectively, both as exercises of Active learning. The Campus Lab methodology is used because universities as living labs can provide a potential holistic and iterative framework for the co-production of knowledge (Evans et al. 2015). Service learning is used as it is considered a strategy for action to achieve social transformation through education (Aramburuzabala 2013). Real-life projects are constructed with the aim to both responding to organisation requirements and enabling students training and competence achievement.

Moreover, in order to go into transdisciplinary settings in greater depth, we include in the course senior citizens through “Aprendre amb la Gent Gran (Learning with the Elderly)”: a social programme for the elderly, of the Districte de Sarrià (Sarrià neighbourhood, Barcelona). The aim of the programme is to bring together and to establish linkages between all the stakeholders and seniors. During 6 to 8 sessions, the elderly worked together with students in the co-elaboration of academic assignments (surveys, reports, videos, diffusion pamphlets, etc.). Students learnt about personal strategies to address issues of awareness, (i.e., how to relate to groups that do have experiential knowledge, which may be far from a scientific–technical one); to listen to the experience of people and to have strategies to frame problems for people to understand, feel affected and own those “global” problems. Table 2 shows a characterization and the main features of the real-life projects. All the real-life projects have been guided by one research question, posed to pull the thread of the investigation and agreed by all the participants, which has been one of the most challenging stages in the AR process, since it has meant identifying and characterising the problem. Interdisciplinary, though, has evolved as an activity, a progress through a web of nodes of connection, rather than an act of establishing a final truth (Welch 2011). Dialogue, interaction and negotiation have appeared as essential values to cope with the complexity of knowledge (Klein 2004).

Course assessment

The assessment in the course is designed to evaluate the learning of the students and the course itself.

At the end of the course, students have to deliver two reports. A first report where they analyse all the AR process that they have applied with particular reflection on: the research paradigms, AR types and its dimensions, research tools used, AR cycles applied and the results obtained. A second report is the result of their research to be delivered to the “client” (guide, policy paper, communication strategy, etc.). Those reports are shown in an oral defence to all the stakeholders and clients, course mates and faculty.

Faculty assesses the AR report using a rubric (Craig 2009), the rubric is also used by the students in the peer-assessment (Topping 1998). Moreover, stakeholders/clients evaluate the results provided by the students.

To evaluate the course, two explicit reflexive questions are asked to the students: What have I learned in this course? And, What do I think about the course (structure, organisation, timing, projects, etc.)? The results of the students’ reflexions have been clustered in Table 3.
Table 3

Reflections of students about their learning and the course


Relevant comments from students


 Research methodologies

Qualitative and Quantitative approaches are needed to see beyond the numbers

I learned the relevance of qualitative aspects as we learned more from direct interaction with people than with quantitative data obtained by “R software”

The management of relations with qualitative research, which is not usually taught in tech universities, has been very stimulating

Qualitative data from interviews is a very inspiring process


I have learned the relevance of stakeholders and the role they play

 Real-life projects

To participate in a real project and to be in touch with real stakeholders has been very interesting

I liked to work in real projects

 Mutual learning

We learn to work with people from different disciplines and to improve our communication skills when working with professionals with different project management schemes

We learn to be more tolerant with our group mates that have different backgrounds and ways of working

The most valuable point was the interaction with stakeholders from other disciplines, listening to their points of view and experiences in the topic

 Robust knowledge

To realise that the different needs and concerns of stakeholders may shake the project process


 Discussions in class

What I liked the most was the organisation and group work in class, allowing us to listen and learn from each other

 Low directedness

There were many expectations at the beginning from all stakeholders and we felt a bit lost

The goal of the research should have been defined between the stakeholders which delayed the project, and was time consuming

The planning was confused and it took time to our self-organisation with the stakeholders

I think that this course gives us too much freedom to make our choices, depending on which stakeholders we were discussing the topic with, the goal were changing.

 Comprehensive project

The course should be run in the first semester as a course that uses the knowledge of the other courses that we take simultaneously in a comprehensive real-life project

It will be interesting to integrate more than one course in a project like this, so we will have more time to perform a better project

In relation to the learning process, most students appreciate: (i) learning with mixed research methodologies and tools; (ii) dealing with stakeholders’ interest and their relevant role in sustainability challenges; (iii) the need of Td approaches; and (iv) teambuilding. In relation to the course, they appreciate: (i) the real-life projects both Service learning and Campus Lab with real stakeholders/clients; (ii) the group work sessions in the classroom with interesting discussions and reflexions on the project process. The main criticisms were related to the low degree of directedness at the beginning that for some was very frustrating, (the low directedness was deliberate in order to train students in dealing with stakeholders’ different interests in real settings). In order to decrease the frustration among students, the course coordinators introduced an emotional intelligence workshop in the course (see next section). Another issue for improvement is that students feel overwhelmed with project work as this course is run simultaneously with another six courses and most of them have project work. Students suggested that there should be a comprehensive project for the whole semester where each course can contribute from its theme. This suggestion has been taken seriously by the Master Coordination Unit and we are now redefining the structure of the Master.

Emotional intelligence module

As commented before, students longed for a way to overcome the “feeling of frustration” related to the project’s uncertainty and to be able to adopt a positive approach to obtain a final result, “having patience” to develop and obtain results. At the same time, they claimed that strengthening the group’s relationship is necessary to feel comfortable in a work dynamic which demands such a degree of participation, good communication and also somehow forces you to get out of the self-comfort zone.

Students realised that as professionals they should face situations in which they have to: manage emotions; solve unexpected situations; solve frustrating situations in the workplace; and of course, manage teams. We decided to offer a different approach to their understanding, posing that many times this kind of situations may be approached by means of generating situations of empathy to ensure that participants can relax and create new common codes.

The module aims to allow students to obtain some experiential knowledge related to emotional intelligence and what the related competences are. These interpersonal competences, related to emotional intelligence are rarely included in curricula, although they have been widely studied and claimed (previous works: Kunnanatt 2004; Barth et al. 2014; Dlouhá and Burandt 2015).

Regarding the structure of the module (session of 2.5 h), it starts with a framing theoretical introduction about emotional intelligence (see Gardner 2001; Bisquerra and Pérez 2007), multiple intelligences theory (Mayer and Salovey 1997; Goleman 1996) and related competences, always within the framework of sustainability (Lambrechts et al. 2013; Wiek et al. 2011; Sipos et al. 2008).

After that they participate in some exercises or dynamics proper to therapeutic theatre. The module follows the thread of the 5 domains of emotional competence: emotional awareness, emotional regulation, emotional autonomy, social competence, skills for life and well-being, proposed by GROP.1 After an initial group distension dynamic, the module is conducted, through dramatised exercises.

Participants recognise in an experiential way what the emotions involved in each of these domains of EI are, self-competence in all of them and how emotions can be perceived and expressed, understood, regulated and facilitated. Furthermore, one of the students contributed as a reflection that “I considered it really enjoyable not only to find out how group dynamics work, to see myself acting as an individual integrated in a wider sense, but also to learn about my own consciousness and capacity of nonverbal communication and awareness”.


After the 3 years of the programme, we have observed that students set out the importance of some topics and the difficulty they have to maintain them. On the one hand, they realised the significance of framing an investigation under a research methodology that allows bringing research to the community, enhancing transdisciplinarity in any initiative or action. Difficulties appeared at different points in the process, starting from the very beginning, when the problem formulation proved to be one of the most arduous task in the process. Students comprehend how the perception of an issue from distinct perspectives and motivations directly influences the approach to the problem. The achievement of a joint formulation of the problem has boosted the knowledge creation process. Another challenge arose with the accompaniment of stakeholders and the recognition of their role, during the whole process, because engineering students are not usually trained to work in wicked problems and moreover to work together with stakeholders. In this sense, collaboration and communication with stakeholders were also challenging; the most successful groups being those capable of incorporating and complementing the experiences and expertise of others when working in their teams (Wiek et al. 2011). Interpersonal skills have also been enhanced with the participation of the senior learning programme Aprendre amb la Gent Gran that deepened the experience from an intergenerational and interpersonal perspective; moreover, the relationship with the elderly has provided the students with values and added communication skills.

Finally, it is relevant to highlight that during the process students faced conflict and frustration within their team and with stakeholders. To face that, an Emotional Intelligence module was introduced in the workshop which helped students to solve some paralysing situations, which could have stopped the progress of the project. Therefore, we suggest that engineering students need specific training in transdisciplinary research and conflict resolution. If not, they could collapse in frustration when dealing with real transdisciplinary sustainability transitions.


  1. 1.

    GROP: Psychopedagogical Counseling Research Group. MIDE, Faculty of Education. University of Barcelona.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Institute for Sustainability Science and TechnologyUniversitat Politècnica de Catalunya-Barcelona TechBarcelonaSpain

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