All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

HafenCity University: truly multidisciplinary

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HafenCity, the university by the water

HafenCity, the university by the water in Hamburg

While in Hamburg I went a few times to visit one of its newer universities, HafenCity University (HCU).  There are several reasons for that: physically, it is housed in a very interesting building; some of the research by faculty are right up my alley (like district heating or green infrastructure); and they have a cool Master’s program, in English, called Resource Efficiency in Architecture and Planning (or REAP).  But mostly, I had noticed that the university boasts an interdisciplinary approach.  I wanted to see what that means in practice.

Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, whatever the word used (and HCU’s website uses all three), one of the most important aspect of university education, in my mind, is the ability to communicate across disciplines.  This is essential for tackling complex problems like climate change – the issue of the 21st century.  But whatever the project, we need engineers who can talk to policy analysts, and vice versa.

The website is quite eloquent in that respect: it states that “HCU works in a transdisciplinary way on the problems of urban living and its spatial, social, cultural, economic and ecological consequences.”  The mission statement expands on this:

  • Disciplinarity as a basis for excellence in one’s own specialist area.
  • Interdisciplinarity through an unified modular structure for all HCU courses, and project work as a central element of each curriculum at the HCU.
  • Transdisciplinarity through an ability to adopt new ways of seeing, behaving and thinking, supported and facilitated by a Studium fundamentale, which forms a core element of all Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes and helps increase creativity and one’s ability to act.

But first, the building.  The uni is housed in a single large building, 140,000 m2 over five stories, just completed in 2014 at one edge of Hafen City.  All the buildings in this new development on the old harbourfront have to be energy efficient, and HCU’s home is no different.  The uni has triple-glazed windows, well insulated surfaces, and the large mass of concrete of the structure serves as a heat storage medium.  In summer, the windows are programmed to open at night for cooling.  And of course, there is a green roof (instrumented – I’ll get back to that).

Much of the building receives natural daylight, and there is constant ventilation with outside air (heat is recovered using a heat exchanger).  The air inside always feels fresh because of that feature.  In spring and fall, when temperatures are moderate so that little heating or cooling is needed, natural ventilation takes over.  This way, the frische Luft – the fresh air that is a must for Germans – is constantly supplied.  They say that the indoor environment in green buildings, the good ventilation and natural light, contribute to make employees more productive.  After visiting a few such buildings, I can understand why – it just feels good in there.

I met with Dr Harald Sternberg, VP Education and Studies, and asked him what interdisciplinarity means at HCU.  He said that when the university was created in 2006, it was decided that the building was going to be homogeneous, without a wing for specific disciplines such as engineering.  This was done to prevent discipline silos and turfwars – the idea being that faculty members mingling would create a sense of cohesion.

Dr Harald Sternberg

Dr Harald Sternberg

HCU’s website mentions the need for “integration of workplace practical skills with academic programs”, and the “current demand for a professional education” at the bachelor’s level, and goes on to state that students get rigorous foundations in their specific disciplines, but develop the ability to converse with other branches of study, through concepts of Urban Planning and Metropolitan Culture.  Sternberg mentioned the common core approach as key.

The bachelor’s level program has a core of courses (about 25 out of 120 credits) common to all disciplines (which include urban planning, geomatics, civil engineering, architecture, and others).  These core courses are spread over the curriculum, and students may take them during their first three years.   Because everyone takes them, they are delivered in large lecture halls (about 300 students), but the classes are broken into small seminars groups comprised of students from a mix of disciplines.  Among the common core topics are things such as Overview of the Building Profession; General Skills (such as scientific method, presentation skills, group work management); History; and Law.

This didn’t come without controversy, of course.  Some students complain; engineering students, in particular, often can’t grasp why they should study history.  But convincing faculty members may have been the bigger challenge.  HCU has its roots in the tradition of applied science universities, where disciplies are well delineated.  At the beginning, many professors did not see the need to create such a large common core.  So HCU created (as universities are wont to do) a committee charged with the design of interdisciplinary curriculum, as well as – and that’s key – selecting the right instructors to ensure flexibility in the process.

Sternberg added that a few outside forces played a role in the process, too.   The uni was undergoing accreditation, and this forced a concerted examination of its approach, with emphasis on what makes it unique.  But also, funding cutbacks emerged as soon as the institution was created; this required creative solutions, including increased flexibility from its teaching staff.  Flexibility can be a dirty word in academia, but here it meant asking faculty to step out of their comfort zone to tackle broad topics instead of staying within their narrow specialization.  This could have been a recipe for disaster, but faculty responded well and the ones I met seem to thrive on this.  New faculty members are now recruited based both on their strength as a specialist as well as their ability to work as part of a multidisciplinary team.

I met with professor Irene Peters, a specialist in the geography and efficiency of urban systems.  Her research covers such topics as the impact of demographics on heat demand for district heating or decentralized wastewater systems, really cool stuff for anyone interested in making cities greener, more livable, and more efficient.  (It is thanks to her that I learned about and visited the KEBAP energy project that I described in an earlier post.)

Dr Irene Peters

Dr Irene Peters

Some of the courses she teaches gave me an insight into the multidisciplinary approach of HCU.  One of them is called Legal and Economic Instruments of Environmental Policy.  This course is team-taught, and covers material from basic concepts of law to emission control, tradeable permits, feed-in-tariffs, as well as how EU laws are integrated into national laws.

But it’s another course, Research Methods and Statistics, that was a real eye-opener.  It’s a common enough title; but the list of topics starts with “Basic concepts in epistemology and philosophy of science “.   Phew!  I asked her whether it isn’t a bit ambitious for an intro course in stats.

She had a chuckle over that.  “It would seem so, doesn’t it?  Students are a bit shocked at first, specially those who don’t have much humanities background.  But they rise to the challenge, and I think they enjoy it.” I don’t recall her exact words, but I remember being impressed.  I think challenging students by exposing them to new concepts is far better than challenging them by piling too much material into a course.  And it pushes students to integrate specific tools – statistical tests, in this case – into a broader context, a truly transdisciplinary one.

One of her grad students, Ansel, an American from Madison, told me he wished he knew more engineering; his master’s work is looking at the performance of district heating systems.  I responded that he should be happy that his undergrad included a breadth of topics in the humanities, which equipped him well to understand policy.  But that is precisely why I think it’s so important to have a multi-disciplinary focus at the undergraduate level; Anselm is bright and I’m sure he’ll be successful, but a broader education would have prepared him better.  As for me, I never heard the word epistemology once through nine years of university studies.  Sigh.

Dr Wolfgang Dickhaut

Dr Wolfgang Dickhaut

I also met with Dr Wolfgang Dickhaut, who told me much the same story about being multi-disciplinary.  Professor Dickhaut is the faculty member in charge of the REAP Master’s program, and he is a big fan of work that spans many disciplines.  His work can attest to that: he was one of the lead investigators in the Wandse flood control project, where members of the community were asked to select the measures they prefered (green roofs, raingardens, greenways, etc) through an interactive computer simulation model.  This project was multidisciplinary in a number of ways: it involved sociologists, communicators, hydrologists, and design rendering specialists, among others, as well as involving researchers from two universities and the municipality.  He is also one of Hamburg’s green roofs specialists, and accordingly he is the key actor behind the university’s large green roof instrumentation system (which measures water retention and flow rates during storms).  He is involved in a project analyzing the impact of climate change on urban trees.  But he is also coordinating a project called e-quartier Hamburg, which looks at the implications for urban planning of electric vehicles or car sharing.  A green roof expert he may be, but he won’t be pigeon-holed.

It seemed that all the work done at HCU follows similar interdisplinary lines.  For instance, I noticed an upcoming conference on the issues of integrating refugees in Hamburg, one that is made up in large part of student research work.  This is, again, of a very interdisciplinary nature, but also shows that the university is nimble enough to steer students towards emerging issues that need urgent attention.

Viewing the green roof at HCU

Viewing the green roof at HCU

I was left daydreaming, imagining some of our Kwantlen grads registering in HCU Master’s program.  I spoke to Madita Feldberger-Schaffer, who works as student liaison for the REAP program.  After I described our programs, she said that grads from our Policy Studies program, and in our upcoming Environmental Geography program, would be fine candidates for the REAP Master’s.  She said that they would bring a welcome contribution, since they represent a diversity of backgrounds (being multidisciplinary also means seeking students from multiple disciplines).  Not an easy program to get into – but who knows!

Now if I could only convince my Kwantlen colleagues of the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach…


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  1. […] reminded that I felt the same way inside the Equiterre building in Montreal, for instance, or the HafenCity University building in […]

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