Support Provided ByLearn More

How to Tackle Wicked Problems

Wicked problems, like mitigating climate change, don't lend themselves to easy solutions, but a transdisciplinary approach across disciplines could help.

NOVA EducationNOVA Education
How to Tackle Wicked Problems

This past winter, Cornell University launched a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with the unwieldy title

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Environmental Education: Transdisciplinary approaches to addressing wicked problems . Over 2,000 environmental educators and other professionals participated in the course—representing countries as far flung as Somaliland, with particularly active groups in China, Brazil, Madagascar, Korea, the U.S., and Iran.

Why a MOOC on

Support Provided ByLearn More
transdisciplinary approaches to wicked problems ? Wicked problems are complex problems, such as improving environmental quality, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and changing environmental behaviors. They are difficult to define (what behaviors do we actually want to change?); they do not lend themselves to easy solutions (how do we change behaviors?); and they are always linked with other problems (e.g., changing behaviors could be complicated by a student’s home life). Because wicked problems are complex and intertwined, resolving them requires collaboration—including between disciplines. It also requires collaboration across sectors such as government, private industry, and non-profit organizations—as well as universities and K-12 schools. In short, transdisciplinary approaches refer to initiatives that use collaboration across disciplines and sectors to address an environmental or other complex problem.

So how does a MOOC create a space for educators from around the world to explore wicked problems? And what does a transdisciplinary approach actually look like in an online course or a K-12 classroom?

For many people, the term MOOC brings to mind sitting—alone and anonymous—in one’s living room, while listening to lectures from a far-off professor. Yet, the original MOOCs—so called connectivist or “cMOOCS”—were an experiment in learner-directed education enabled by the power of the internet to connect people around the world. Our transdisciplinary MOOC has three components: short lectures and readings to facilitate learning about environmental education and six other disciplines (e.g., environmental communication, natural resources management); discussion boards and closed Facebook groups to encourage critical thinking and sharing ideas with fellow course participants; and a final project where participants apply multiple disciplines to a local environmental sustainability project or project plan.

To give an idea of how this works, a participant (usually an educator, environmental professional, or university student) watches a short video and reads an article about an environmental or education topic. She then posts an answer to an open-ended discussion question and immediately is able to see the lecturer’s response to the question, as well as the responses of other participants who have already posted. At any time, she can go onto the course closed Facebook group and pose a question or share resources. MOOC participants can also join a “community group,” whose members meet in person to discuss and help each other translate the course materials, or use smaller Facebook closed groups to exchange ideas about specific topics.

One MOOC participant, Aleeza Oshry (who is also an author on this blog), led a community group focused on curricular integration and application. Seventy-eight MOOC participants from 30 countries joined her group. An agronomist posted: “I’m from Chile, South America, and for us the curricular integration of environmental education is a really ‘wicked’ issue… it is supposed to be a cross curricular subject but then nobody really addresses it directly, …and our teachers are not prepared for this.” Students responded to this and other Facebook posts by offering encouragement, resources, and sharing their own experiences. Aleeza also developed a case study for her final course project entitled:

Using Wicked Problems to Achieve Academic Disciplinary Goals . The MOOC reinforced what Aleeza had been thinking all along—integrating wicked problems into school curriculum creates a relevant context for learning disciplinary content, which can lead to a greater understanding and better management of our environment.

In short, the MOOC illustrated a transdisciplinary approach at two levels. First we assembled an international team of 45 experts as course lecturers, who shared knowledge about different disciplines and about work in multiple sectors that address environmental problems. Second, the course participants represented multiple disciplines and sectors, and shared their insights on addressing wicked problems in the discussion boards, Facebook groups, and their final project.

But how can we apply transdisciplinary approaches to addressing wicked environmental problems in K-12 schools?

Aleeza happens to work in Maryland, which officially adopted Environmental Literacy Standards, and passed an Environmental Literacy Graduation requirement in 2010. This in turn led to the Maryland Environmental Literacy Partnership , which inspired the creation of the Environmental Literacy Model. Over the last two years, Aleeza has been a fellow with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, working in concert with the literacy partnership and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to develop this model.


Credit: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The Environmental Literacy Model, or ELM, provides an approach for integrating issues investigations and civic action into curriculum. It reflects dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies Standards—in particular those that emphasize connecting disciplinary content with inquiries and investigations relevant to students’ lives. ELM incorporates a transdisciplinary approach by focusing on investigations and action that are not limited to a specific content area, but reflect the skills needed to address the multi-faceted and complex “wicked” problems we face in the real world.

In addition to being cross-disciplinary, ELM entails collaboration between sectors—educators and environmental professionals who work in organizations outside the formal school system. These individuals contribute resources, expertise, and content knowledge to support classroom educators and formal academic learning goals.

The ELM approach features three components that make it easier for students to understand and address a wicked problem:

         Curriculum Anchor: Academic connections

         Issues Investigation: Exploration through inquiry

         Civic Action: Application of information

The issues investigations and civic action components are “anchored” in learning objectives derived from national and state standards. This allows students to simultaneously engage in inquiry of relevant issues while meeting academic standards. After analyzing information and constructing explanations about the issue, students develop claims around which they design and implement an action.

In one ELM example, Michael Page, Science Supervisor at Queen Anne’s County Public Schools on Maryland’s eastern shore, teamed up with Jemima LaClair Clark, STEM Educator & Program Manager at Washington College Center for Environment & Society. Together they led a select group of teachers recruited to be a part of the district’s Environmental Literacy Committee. Their task: align curriculum with NGSS and Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Standards. Their approach: student investigations and action.

Page and Clark decided to focus the student investigations around a particularly salient issue for people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: declining oyster populations. Oysters are directly connected to the health of the bay and play a critical role in the region’s economy, history and culture. Here we outline the school district’s preliminary plan for a transdisciplinary ELM approach to align and integrate locally relevant investigations and action into the high school biology curriculum.




Schools and communities can prepare students for college, career, and civic readiness in the 21st century by using a transdisciplinary approach to learning. A transdisciplinary approach seeks to cross not only disciplines but also sectors. Through our online course, we have found that the notion of wicked problems resonates across countries—even in places like Iran where MOOC participants wrote their final project about how local communities are addressing issues ranging from air pollution to ecotourism. Perhaps transdisciplinarity and wicked problems also offer a language for students to understand how their own local communities are taking action to address local environmental problems. For schools to be engaged in addressing wicked problems, their students need to work not only across subject matter boundaries but also in collaboration with government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses. State environmental literacy standards, NGSS, and related mandates like service-learning, provide a context for such work to begin.

The Transdisciplinary MOOC was developed as part of EECapacity , EPA’s National Environmental Education Training Program. This publication was developed under Assistant Agreement No. NT-83497401 awarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been formally reviewed by EPA. The views expressed are solely those of authors, and EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.