Tackling Wicked Problems with Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Research: A Team Perspective

By Anthony Sutton1, Jordan Lamkins2, Hannah Nadeau2, Natalie Thomsen3, Kendall Willard4, and Deborah Saber5,‡

1 Ecology and Environmental Science, University of Maine, Orono ME
2 Nursing, University of Maine, Orono ME
3 Business, Economics, and Legal Studies, University of Maine, Farmington ME
4 Civil/Environmental Engineering, University of Maine, Orono ME
5 Assistant Professor of Nursing, University of Maine, Orono ME
Corresponding Author. Email: deborah.saber@maine.edu

Introduction: Food waste is a Wicked Problem

As a land and Sea Grant institution, the University of Maine (UMaine) is uniquely positioned to address the complex human-ecological problems impacting communities across the state. UMaine studies the diverse ways climate change impacts the state, including shifting forest compositions, changes in coastal resources, and waste management challenges (Isenhour et al. 2016; Lazarus and McGill 2014; Teisl Bell and Noblet 2017). These research projects address issues that can be defined as “wicked problems” as the social, political, and environmental conditions shape how these problems transpire and how people collaborate to create solutions (Rittel and Webber 1973). These problems require interdisciplinarity, as the complexity of an issue cannot be solved by a social scientist, engineer, or economist alone (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Consequently, the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at UMaine has become a collaborative space where disciplines can work together to generate solutions to “wicked problems” (Hart et al. 2015). One of these problems, examined here, is the multiple impacts of food waste on communities.

Food waste as a contributor to climate change illustrates how individual behaviors can have a global and local impact. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that approximately one third of all food globally is wasted- approximately 1.3 billion tons per year (FAO 2019). This fuels climate change as the decomposition of food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (Isenhour et al. 2016). What makes this problem “wicked” is when the issue of food waste becomes connected to other issues, such as food insecurity. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 37.2 million Americans live in food insecure households, which is characterized by lacking food like fruits and vegetables (USDA 2019). With Maine failing to achieve its goal of a 50% reduction in municipal solid waste by 2014, there is considerable room for improvement in waste reduction and recovery (Isenhour et al. 2016). As food waste contributes to this problem, UMaine is one institution doing collaborative research to generate solutions for communities and businesses across the state.

These “wicked problems” require interdisciplinary approaches because the problems are complex and require groups of researchers from varied backgrounds to work towards creating solutions (Saber and Silka 2020). At UMaine, food waste as a “wicked” problem has been targeted by researchers at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, and research funding offered the opportunity for undergraduate interdisciplinary teams to work over two years to examine issues of food waste, with enriched educational experiences of applying disciplinary methods to complex problems. The Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Collaborative I (IURC-I) team completed their work in 2019. The IURC-II team will end their teamwork in April 2020. This text will primarily focus on the IURC-II teamwork. Through this text, we will: (1) provide an overview of why campuses are creating teams to address “wicked” problems; (2) share undergraduate interdisciplinary team member’s research focus and findings; (3) discuss the challenges of interdisciplinary teams for undergraduate students; and (4) present the concept for an interdisciplinary undergraduate course that could offer students the ability to earn course credit while learning valuable skills.

Interdisciplinary Research and Our Research Team

To mobilize the multiple disciplines needed to help resolve “wicked problems” like food waste, research teams are forming on academic campuses and transforming our thinking about these pressing issues. Many scholars argue that thinking in interdisciplinary settings helps expand our understanding of problems and can help develop innovative solutions to these multifaceted issues (Bark, Kragt, and Robson 2016; Horne et al. 2019; Horton et al. 2019). At the UMaine, several scholars note that campus dynamics are shifting, leading to the development of teams to respond to “wicked problems” (Horne et al. 2019; Horton et al. 2019). Our team writes about the experiences of undergraduate research working in these settings. As emerging professionals, undergraduates gain valuable experience by developing practical skills that they can apply in real-world settings (Adya, Temple, and Hepburn 2015). Additionally, incorporating undergraduates into research teams expands ideas and potential insights about research topics (Kortz and van der Hoeven Kraft 2016). Thus, forming research teams on college campuses is beneficial for undergraduates through enriching their educational experience, while utilizing their fresh perspectives on team projects to advance our thinking about complex issues.

The first undergraduate team (IURC-I) produced findings to help understand the barriers within municipalities and industries that describe why food waste programs are not implemented, as well as addressed food recovery such as anaerobic digestion and community composting programs (Horton et al. 2019). Our team (IURC-II) extended their research by shifting the focus from stakeholder outcomes to considering our team dynamic with processes to support the growth of research teams on campus.

From the outset, we intended to create an open environment where team members were comfortable sharing their ideas (Horne et al. 2019). Many of our early meetings allowed members a space where individuals could ask for feedback or clarity about their individual project (Horne et al. 2019; Ziwoya and Falconer 2018). This helped to inform topics for our bi-monthly meetings as students worked through issues like stakeholder engagement or how to collect different forms of data. This approach also helped our research team by providing members with opportunities to work with individuals from other disciplines to develop the skills needed for translating disciplinary jargon to reach broader audiences (Horne et al. 2019). This document serves as an example of how students develop skills in interdisciplinary settings. In the next section, we elaborate by sharing one topic we focused on during meetings.


Interdisciplinary Thinking: Defining Success Across Disciplines

Interdisciplinary research offers a certain freedom of thought and increased awareness of all aspects of a problem, which siloed research often misses. Discussion fostered by an interdisciplinary team allows members to understand new perspectives as well as develop their own. Instead of an issue being a one-dimensional responsibility owned by a particular field, it is “…a research problem that more closely represents the reality in which such problems are situated” (Bark et al. 2016, p. 1450). One realization from our meetings was how each student utilized a distinct approach to the same problem. The interdisciplinary process specifically benefits this research team because separate disciplines study different stages in the food waste process, ranging from food production to energy recovery, and by bringing them together, we develop a more complete understanding of this problem.

Undergraduate interdisciplinary research experiences allow students to gather data and disseminate it into the field of science. Working as part of an undergraduate interdisciplinary research team finds several benefits such as learning how to responsibly conduct research, how to gather data, interpret the findings, and work as a team. Although the IURC-II extended the work from the previous cohort, the ways in which research was conducted—as well as the consequent results—were unique. In fact, by working in the IURC-II as a team, we built on the IURC-I work and more clearly understand food waste as a multi-faceted issue. Our interdisciplinary work provided discussions around this topic during bi-monthly scheduled meetings and one topic in particular focused on how each of us discusses solutions differently. Jordan, a nursing student, considered food waste in hospitals. Kendall examined food waste from the perspective of an engineering student working in an anaerobic digestion (AD) lab as a way to recover energy lost through food waste. Lastly, Natalie with a business and economics major, identified barriers to food donations within businesses in Maine.

Jordan: A Nursing Perspective

Although food waste can be thought of as a “wicked problem,” healthcare institutions are often excluded from the conversation. There is a paucity in the literature regarding food waste, which creates a vast void in data considering that there are 6,146 hospitals in the United States (American Hospital Association [AHA] 2020). The IURC-I team studied food waste in acute care hospitals and found that most dispose of food through sink disposal systems and do not use composting (Horton et al. 2019). In the IURC II team, Jordan examined food waste in seven long-term healthcare facilities and found that over 85% of facilities do not participate in composting or anaerobic digestion and that the majority of facilities (71%) dispose of food waste through sink disposal systems, which mirrors the practice of acute care facilities. The amount of food waste going down sink disposals was not recorded in any facilities, which indicates that the amount of food waste can be much higher than estimated (Lamkins and Saber Unpublished Raw Data). Another finding was that hospitals are unable to donate unused food to local shelters due to concerns about litigation. Current laws do not fully protect agencies against litigation from donation efforts (U.S. Congress 1966). These findings indicate that more research is needed to understand the barriers to mitigating food waste in the U.S. healthcare system.

Kendall: An Engineer’s Perspective

Energy recovery from food waste is one way of improving the current food economy, and it takes place after general food intake can be reduced or reused. As part of the IURC II team, Kendall studied anaerobic digestion (AD) as one such method of food recovery in both a laboratory and literary setting. AD is an alternative to sending food waste to landfills; it produces methane biogas, which can be used as a source of clean energy (Laiq Ur Rehman et al. 2019). It is defined as “a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen” (Dombrowski 2018, para. 1). The lab where Kendall worked examines optimizing digestion by understanding what types of food facilitates and inhibits the production of methane, which is vital to successfully contributing to solving this “wicked” problem. By learning how to make AD a reliable method of food recovery, facilities and corporations can be encouraged to adopt the process. Discussion with industry leaders could include the success of AD processes, lab results, or articles about chemicals that inhibit digestion. Overall, the contribution of AD to our experience of solving the food waste problem is that it provides “decentralized renewable energy generation within cities, reduced waste transport and the potential for community food-growing initiatives” (Fuldauer et. al. 2018, p. 930).

Natalie: A Business and Economics Perspective

Multiple perspectives add to the problem of “wickedness,” which can complicate the process of developing solutions. To understand barriers to food donation, Natalie distributed 250 surveys to businesses across Maine, with a 20% response rate. Questions were focused on identifying restrictions or barriers of food donation by food industry leaders (businesses that produce food waste such as grocery stores and restaurants). Results found that only 27% of the businesses donate food to food banks on a regular basis. A few businesses reported donating food during the holidays as a charitable donation. However, approximately 50% of businesses expressed interest in increasing donation to food banks. To aid businesses that are interested in finding an alternative way to dispose of food, a website is being created as a guide for increased involvement in food pantry donations, composting, donations to farms, and anaerobic digestion and will be sent out to all survey participants. One feature on the website is a map that users can access to find the nearest facilities accepting food and the procedures at each site for accepting food donations or waste.

The Team’s Perspective

Through our interdisciplinary approach to examination of food waste, we realize firsthand that “wicked problems” are indeed complex. Multiple disciplines are required to comprehensively study the amount of waste, the precision that is needed to effectively and safely degrade waste, and the barriers to decreasing food waste. As these examples illustrate, our team members are able to use their disciplinary specialties to address key facets of food waste, from businesses, industries, and food recovery. Bringing undergraduate students together promotes educational enrichment through the practice of authentic and meaningful communication across disciplines during meetings, and through academic outputs such as this paper. By participating in research teams, young researchers can generate findings to work towards solutions for “wicked problems.” Additionally, this experiential opportunity provides a practice environment where often unseen challenges arise that must be addressed to move data into actionable steps. The challenges that our team met and resolved are described next.

Challenges and Barriers

Over the year-long IURC-II, our team overcame challenges demonstrating our commitment to the value of interdisciplinary work and resolving food waste. We found a setting where students had the ability to explore their interest in science, while also creating connections with professors and other peers (Seymour et al. 2004). Critical components to team success include financial backing to conduct research and a strong desire and commitment to working in the interdisciplinary team (Aubé and Rousseau 2005; National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine 2017). However, time constraints pose a real challenge to students balancing course loads and work schedules.

One of the most prominent challenges to our undergraduate interdisciplinary research project was trying to find time when everyone can meet. Because team members were enrolled in different fields of study, weekly schedules differed dramatically, as university departments coordinated largely within themselves when determining class times. For example, nursing labs start early in the morning (8:00 a.m.) and run into the afternoon (1:00 p.m.). Whereas, engineering programs have labs in the afternoon (2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.). In addition, some students were required to work outside of the classroom to fulfill disciplinary requirements, requiring even more balance between class, individual work, and work with the team. Our student athlete encountered a unique challenge because many of her hours outside of the classroom were dedicated to sports team activities (Dahlberg et al. 2019).

Undergraduate student schedules also varied from the senior members of the research team (i.e., graduate student and faculty). Undergraduate schedules were rather rigid, not allowing much room for additional meeting times or workloads. Alternatively, our graduate student attended more meeting times for courses such as lectures, labs and fieldwork than undergraduate students, and his schedule was more flexible with course load and time throughout the day. However, our graduate students’ time was filled with other research commitments and family obligations, making fewer opportunities for team commitments. Our lead faculty member had a combination of the above obstacles to her schedule. Throughout the year, she taught rigidly scheduled classes, advised students, conducted her own research, and participated on committees at the department, college, and/or university level.

Despite challenges, our IURC-II was committed and passionate about the project and found solutions to the barriers. We creatively found solutions using technology through Google Calendar (Figure 1: Example of Google Calendar) to find common “open” meeting times. Additionally, the use of video conferencing was paramount in allowing our remote research member to attend meetings. This technology was also used to allow our team member to participate in a presentation at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainable Solutions from a remote location. Another way that we accommodated the needs of the team was to provide simple meals at the meetings. Our meetings were scheduled at dinner time, and one member of the team volunteered to bring pizza for the meetings. This allowed for more flexibility in scheduling so that team members did not need to worry about dinner plans on the evening of the research meeting. While these solutions helped us during our time, we also discussed how teams going forward could create a course to help alleviate many of these difficulties in undergraduate research teams.


Creating an Opportunity for Undergraduate Students to Participate in Interdisciplinary Groups

 One way to create more opportunities for undergraduate collaboration with research teams is by creating a university course for student enrollment to receive credit hours. The benefits of course-based research classes are very similar to those achieved as part of an extracurricular research team (Lopatto 2010). These benefits include students taking ownership of their learning and achieving cognitive, personal, and professional growth (Kortz and van der Hoeven Kraft 2016). According to Kinner and Lord (2018), course-based research classes also have a large impact on younger undergraduates, potentially increasing first- or second-year participation in research. Additionally, course-based classes provide increased instruction time, which creates the ability to expose students to the processes of research, from hypotheses to results, and are shown to help students to be better prepared for continuing education and work as change agents (Kortz and van der Hoeven Kraft 2016). A developed course would allow students to create connections between a professor’s teaching and research, which informs the student of the critical nature of research for all disciplines within a research university, such as the University of Maine.

The IURC-II team designed a prototype course that focuses on research that specifically relates to food waste within an interdisciplinary group. Our 5-credit course spans the length of three semesters (i.e., spring [1 credit], summer [3 credits], fall [1 credit]) and enrollment requires commitment to all three semesters. Student cohorts are targeted to begin in the spring semester to build knowledge for research and work within a food waste team. Course objectives include the ability to: 1) Define sustainability and how interdisciplinary research applies to the topic; 2) Classify different categories of research and how they relate to creating progress in sustainability; and 3) Demonstrate an understanding of the circular food system and food recovery systems. During this first semester, lead faculty connect students with professors with research that is focused on food waste. During semester two (summer), students will conduct their research and gather data following their plan created in the spring. During semester three (fall), data from research is analyzed and an interdisciplinary manuscript is developed for submission. The overall course grade for each semester is pass or fail and would be determined by the completion of assignments (e.g., journals, class participation, presentations) as well as the participation of the student within the class.

Figure 2: Mock Schedule for Spring Class

Conclusion: Future Directions

Research at the University of Maine is an important aspect of educational opportunities. In the past, there has been an emphasis for undergraduate students to participate in existing research, which provides a positive experience, yet creating more small extra-curricular research groups may not maximize the potential of the university (American Association for the Advancement of Science 2011). As undergraduate researchers, we understand the value of learning the research process within an interdisciplinary team. Through a three-semester course, students would have dedicated time and expanded opportunities to participate in research projects and grow as scholars. We hope to demonstrate through our experience that this model could be expanded to other complex research topics across the university, allowing undergraduates to conduct sustainability research and develop skills that will help prepare them for advanced degrees and entry into the workforce.



This IURC-II Project was supported through the University of Maine 2018-2019 Research Reinvestment Fund Student Awards Competition.

We would like to extend a sincere thank you to the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine for all the support during this interdisciplinary undergraduate research project.


Interactive Map of Maine Food Pantries


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