Collaborative framework for designing a sustainability science programme: Lessons learned at the National Autonomous University of Mexico

Lakshmi Charli-Joseph, Ana E. Escalante, Hallie Eakin, Ma José Solares, Marisa Mazari-Hiriart, Marcia Nation, Paola Gómez-Priego, César A Domínguez Pérez-Tejada, Luis A. Bojórquez-Tapia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The authors describe the challenges and opportunities associated with developing an interdisciplinary sustainability programme in an emerging economy and illustrate how these are addressed through the approach taken for the development of the first postgraduate programme (MSc and PhD) in sustainability science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The purpose of this paper is to outline an approach that has a potential for application in other parts of Latin America and perhaps more broadly in other world regions sharing some of the same challenges and opportunities as found in Mexico. Design/methodology/approach: The implemented collaborative framework enabled a transformation of disciplinary research and teaching at UNAM into a postgraduate programme designed to generate cutting-edge educational and research capabilities. The approach to curriculum and programme design emphasized the process and methodological framework for curriculum development as much as the outcome itself. It entailed three primary elements: theory on collaborative processes; the curriculum design approach; and a formative and summative evaluation. Findings: Several of the challenges faced were related to the nature of the institution (mainly because of the complexity of its organization and the emphasis in maintaining disciplinary boundaries), as well as to the curriculum development and design approach (acceptance of a competency-based programme appropriate for the MSc but considered restrictive for the PhD). The experience the authors relate in this paper exemplifies how to cope with such challenges. The approach enabled the emergence of a shared vision that was appropriated by all the participants. This ultimately empowered them in the presentation of the curriculum to their disciplinary peers. Furthermore, the approach facilitated the creation of a programme that remained salient along the process, while increasingly gained legitimacy and credibility among the academic community. Social implications: In Mexico, the number of sustainability practitioners and scientists is still insufficient, and there is a clear lack of capacities in key themes and tools. UNAM combines a strong scientific tradition and a foundational mandate to serve both the country and humanity and is, thus, a natural platform for developing a higher education programme in sustainability science. The approach taken in the development of UNAM’s programme has useful lessons for the development of similar programmes in other developing nations facing similar educational and institutional challenges. Originality/value: This model not only resulted in an innovative and novel programme in sustainability education but also, in the process, strengthened the competencies of diverse stakeholders through a systematic collaborative framework that fosters sustainability as a social learning process. Such experience illustrates the advantages of implementing a collaborative approach to enable the emergence of a critical mass capable to handle the diversity presupposed by a curriculum in sustainability science. It also shows how such a collaborative process can be implemented to overcome the limited resources, lack of experience in sustainability education and strong disciplinary focus that hampers the advancement of higher education in institutions similar to UNAM.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)378-403
Number of pages26
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2016


  • Collaborative framework
  • Mexico
  • Postgraduate programme
  • Sustainability science
  • Transdisciplinary
  • UNAM

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Education


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