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A Graduate Education Framework for Producing Skilled and Creative Leaders

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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When asked whether an independent India would follow the British pattern of development, Mahatma Ghandi replied, "It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets would a country like India require?" The challenge of addressing the seemingly contradictory objectives of environmental conservation and economic development is particularly urgent in tropical countries, which often have both high biodiversity and some of the world's lowest standards of living.


The posting below, while using a particular set of subjects - tropical conservation and development - provides a model for interdisciplinary education that should appeal to many other departments and universities. The posting is an from the paper "A graduate education framework for tropical conservation and development". and is provided by Professor Karen Kainer [ ] of the School of Forest Resource & Conservation/ Tropical Conservation & Development Program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Department Meetings

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Kainer, K.A., M. Schmink, J.R. Stepp, H. Covert, E.M. Bruna, J.L. Dain, S. Espinosa and S. Humphries. 2006.

A graduate education framework for tropical conservation and development.

Conservation Biology 20(1):3-13


Reshaping graduate education

This complex, interrelated, and rapidly changing world has motivated universities to rethink the educational experience of society's future leaders. In the United States, and perhaps more so in developing countries, public investment in higher education is predicated upon a return of knowledge and technology for the benefit of society. Some call for changes not to just "tweak graduate education around the edges", but to reshape it completely.

Conventional graduate training related to tropical conservation and development has typically separated the two fields, with students focusing on either conservation from the perspective of the biophysical sciences or development as an extension of the social sciences. Employers, however, indicate that they need team members with cross-disciplinary and disciplinary depth, skills in languages, negotiation, and policy analysis. The ability to effectively elicit and present ideas and negotiate varying interests can make or break a conservation program, regardless of technical merit. Although the traditional currency of peer-reviewed publications still holds the greatest weight within the scientific community, communicating effectively with a remarkably diverse group of stakeholders, ranging from indigenous groups to corporate CEOs, is now considered a highly desirable conservation skill.

How might graduate programs better prepare students to become this type of skilled, forward-thinking leader prepared to improve human well-being while conserving the diversity of biological wealth in the tropics? The University of Florida's Tropical Conservation and Development Program (TCD) has been wrestling with these issues for over 15 years, and the program's framework for managing and adapting a graduate program is a product of these years of experience.

Framework for tropical conservation and development learning and action

The TCD program, housed in the University of Florida's Center for Latin American Studies, was established in the 1980s. The program does not grant degrees; rather, it offers an interdisciplinary certificate that functions much like a minor. It also provides a supportive learning environment, and fellowships and research grants for M.S. and Ph.D. students who are pursuing careers in tropical conservation and development ( Because TCD is housed in the Center for Latin American Studies, without allegiance to any particular college, it enjoys a level of autonomy and neutrality that has fostered experimentation and development of unique mechanisms that support learning and action.

Approximately one-half of all participating students are from Latin America and other tropical countries. Between 1988 and 2005, the TCD fellowship competition has awarded 248 academic-year fellowships to 145 entering and continuing students from 27 countries. The graduate education framework that has emerged from the TCD program builds on traditional disciplinary foundations, integrates past and present student experiences, and embraces collaborative learning and action. At the heart of this framework is a learning and action platform - an intellectual, social, and professionally-safe space for participants to interact and innovate. Feeding into this platform is a triad of theory, skills, and praxis with respective foci on problem-solving, personal-leadership and field application.

Problem-centered focus

The theoretical leg of the platform draws on the disciplinary depth of diverse students and faculty, encouraging transdisciplinary exploration within a problem-oriented approach. The current cohort of 88 TCD students is matriculated in over a dozen social and biophysical science units across campus. The overarching goal is for students to achieve fluency in their home discipline and competency in others. Students are encouraged to let the problem at hand guide the choice of applicable discipline(s), rather than let the discipline determine the limits of the problem itself. Intellectual heterodoxy and innovation emerge from cross-disciplinary dialogue regarding key concepts or problems.

Personal-leadership focus

A second dimension of the TCD learning and action platform is development of skilled and creative leaders. Graduate students in the program typically bring an impressive amount of experience, perhaps through a research project or work with rural communities through programs such as Peace Corps. Respondents of a 2004-2005 TCD student survey had a mean age of 32 years, and over 63% had between 1 and 6 years of work experience. Another 30% had more than 7 years of experience (n = 44). The TCD program consciously creates a space where students can reflect on and contextualize their experiences, skills, and knowledge, solidifying their learning and strengthening leadership abilities.

Traditionally graduate students are trained to develop and sharpen technical skills essential for becoming a rigorous researcher. Within the TCD program, the emphasis is on developing other complementary skills: learn outside their immediate disciplines, think in terms of linked socioecological systems, work in teams, negotiate among competing interests, and communicate in nonacademic formats. In this model, faculty act not only as experts, but also assume the role of facilitating learning, rather than controlling it. Students take greater responsibility for their own learning, build upon what they already know, and discover and define what they need to know.

Field-application focus

The third leg of the TCD platform focuses on field application of the accumulated skills and knowledge. This can also be called praxis, or "practice with reflection". Student interact with TCD's myriad institutional partners (of which TCD alumni are key), promoting collaborative learning and practice and building an international and transgenerational commitment to tropical conservation and development. Students learn to juggle different expectations and often competing roles as they negotiate the focus and approach of their research with academic committee members, host-country partners, and local communities.

Putting TCD into Practice

What are some of the practical ways in which the TCD Program puts this approach into practice? Rather than creating a formal degree program, TCD concentrates on developing a complementary set of activities (courses, workshops, and conferences, fellowships, research grants, and visitors). The three central goals of the program (training, research, and promotion of a learning and action network) are blended together in practice such that most programmatic decisions are based on how a particular decision might maximize gain in each of these three areas. Development of the program's three core courses is a good example of this approach.


Community Forest Management and TCD Research Methods are examples of a core TCD conceptual and methods courses. They are team taught by social and biological scientists, discuss key concepts and theories to address central issues from a comparative perspective across multiple scales in time and space, and draw extensively on student experience and expertise. As with other core courses, student feedback is solicited formally through written and oral evaluations. These evaluations exemplify TCD's emphasis on continuous critical learning, improve the course, serve to keep teaching fresh and enthusiastic, and offer students a stake in the course and larger program.

Other TCD core courses provide explicit training in practical skills development. Current course options include Facilitation Skills for Adaptive Management, Conservation Entrepreneurship, and Collaboration and Conflict Management. In these course the focus is on learning and practicing the communication, facilitation, negotiation, mediation, and management skills needed by professionals in the real world. Subsequently, students who take these courses are often tapped to organize on-campus training sessions and workshops. They may also develop off-campus activities with partner institutions through the practitioner experience described below or through a paid consultancy. With faculty backstopping, these opportunities incrementally build and refine students' skills and simultaneously develop new and strengthen existing linkages with field partners.

Alternative learning and action spaces

Although the core courses are central to the curriculum, the hallmark of the TCD graduate education program is the multiple learning opportunities outside the classroom, what we call alternative learning and action spaces. The program's field-research grants competition is a good example of this type of space. Between 1988 and 2005, 227 grants were awarded for students to work in 33 foreign countries on projects ranging from the evaluation of collaborative management projects in Uganda to the evolutionary ecology and conservation of Neotropical birds. Graduate students compete for these annual awards based on sound scientific proposals judged by an interdisciplinary faculty panel. Each recipient is affiliated with a local organization and develops written protocols for collaboration when possible. All are required to return their research results to partner groups through locally appropriate formats. Similarly, they share their experiences and findings with others at the University of Florida through an annual TCD field research clinic.

The TCD program also offers funds for visiting professionals and "practitioner experiences," a form of internship in which students work with a host organization, learning from them and contributing to the organization's efforts. Recent practitioner experiences include full participation on a World Wildlife Fund evaluation team in Suriname and Guyana, and facilitation of a partner-driven workshop in Mexico on recent developments in mahogany research. In contrast, visiting professionals come to campus, and usually conduct a workshop or deliver a course session on a particular skill or approach of interest to students. While advancing their own professional goals, these visitors keep the TCD program current and create a space where students can learn from field personnel entrenched in day-to-day conservation and development realities.

Other examples of alternative learning spaces include orientations and retreats, a weekly student-led seminar series, and predeparture (field research) and proposal-writing workshops. Student teams have also organized and led multiple one-half-day or one-day workshops to share their disciplinary expertise in such diverse topics as ecological concepts for social scientists, gender analysis targeting natural scientists, and basic geographic information system skills for the nonexpert. Student-led workshops provide another forum for students to practice and fine-tune their skills. Backstopping by TCD faculty is key to the success of these workshops, ensuring that students on the delivery end have sufficient support, and those on the receiving end get a good product.

These alternative spaces do not add unnecessary course requirements to an already-packed graduate curriculum, and students indicate that they are extremely helpful in supporting immediate graduate-study needs and providing a broader perspective on professional roles. Learning and action spaces are not only for students, however, as the program places a high value on systematically and thoroughly reflecting on its activities. This type of learning is sometimes termed transformative learning because by incorporating periodic and systematic evaluation of the learning process, one is forced to critique fundamental principles and habits of doing work, often transforming or changing one's knowledge base, skills, and attitudes. An example of this learning within TCD is the end-of-semester faculty retreats organized to discuss teaching and other program activities. Similarly, student input on program activities and strategies is solicited on a regular basis to delineate new ideas and outline corrective action. These critical moments of reciprocal learning continue to change and improve the way TCD carries out its graduate training. They also demonstrate the value of student input and collaboration, fostering trust within the program and mutual respect between students and faculty.

Program challenges

This "learning and action" approach to tropical conservation and development training begets new challenges for graduate education. The praxis elements of the program with explicit requirements to collaborate with home-country partners and return research results to local audiences, create an additional set of demands on graduate students, by redefining good research. We currently have no evidence that TCD students take longer to complete their degrees, but the academic certificate program is newly implemented, and we are monitoring this important aspect. Service demands on TCD faculty are also elevated as they seek funds for and administer new programs to support collaborative field efforts and alternative educational opportunities. In addition, faculty time and energy needed to build and maintain the necessary long-term, long-distance relationships with partners are significant and typically not rewarded within academia. Although many disciplinary advisors welcome the complementary support TCD provides their students, the program can be viewed as a hindrance to graduate studies given course requirements, muddying of disciplinary waters, and general uncertainties and tradeoffs that accompany working closely with host-country partners. Despite these challenges, adaptively-managed educational programs that emphasize a broader learning and action network of students, faculty and field partners provide the best hope for responding to the emerging challenges of tropical conservation and development.