The Journey to Community-Engaged Transdisciplinary Research

Ruth Kassel, Krysta Dennis, Robin Flatland, Scott Foster, Siena College


The Siena Project Incubator (SPIn) is an interdisciplinary community engaged research program that represents a collaboration between the Center for Academic Community Engagement and the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities at Siena College. Based on the literature of authentic faculty-student partnership (Healey Flint and Harrington), transdisciplinary research (McClam and Flores-Scott), and community engaged research (Stoecker), this program brings together faculty from diverse disciplines, students at different stages of study, and community organizations who serve as research sites and educational partners. Over the years, our undergraduates have built strong research and leadership skills engaging in diverse forms of publication and dissemination like plays, quantitative homelessness studies, new business ventures, and innovative opioid programming.

This article outlines how community engaged undergraduate research creates an environment, a space, where transdisciplinary research emerges organically through democratic partnership, minimized power differentials, and alternative pedagogical spaces. Our focus on space is rooted in the authentic educational experience of Freire and is adapted from the concepts of counterspace (Cook-Sather and Agu) and brave space (Arao and Clemens). We provide concrete examples and stories of how we created these spaces in The Living Museum Project, a multi-year initiative that has brought together computer science, theatre, history, and visual arts to engage in virtual and augmented reality with local historic sites. While this project works with different historic sites, in this article we discuss one iteration where we worked with a historic house museum significant to the Underground Railroad and a black theatre troupe. Students, faculty, and partners in this project engaged in highly collaborative work combining virtual reality programming, historic dramaturgy, playwriting, visual arts, and graphic arts. In the end, a virtual reality tour with original artwork and a play with virtual reality elements ensured that students took on highly collaborative leadership roles and the research went from interdisciplinary to transdisciplinary. For this article, we consider transdisciplinarity to be trans-sector, problem-oriented research involving a wider range of stakeholders in society (Klein).

We aim to demonstrate that, before considering the steps to success on a project like this, the transdisciplinary research team must have a shared epistemology and way of thinking about the research, as well as shared goals and approach. Collaborative undergraduate transdisciplinary research in the community must stem from the creation of spaces through community engagement where power differentials can be neutralized, and attention can be paid to best practices in transdisciplinary research (Klein) and student-centered learning. These spaces enable the authentic relationships that take the work from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary to transdisciplinary. We demonstrate how developing these spaces leads to increased student motivation and ownership, greater appreciation of interdisciplinarity for faculty and students, and high quality publications in academic and public venues.

Siena College is a Franciscan liberal arts undergraduate institution of approximately 3000 students in Upstate New York. The Living Museum Project, which grew out of the Siena Project Incubator, aims to work with local historic sites to create experiences that will engage new audiences in reimagining history and to connect the unique history of the sites to modern day issues and the surrounding local community. This may have implications for how our campuses can engage our students more broadly in an interdisciplinary fashion by giving them opportunities to work across disciplines to do research and create artifacts that are motivated and guided by the needs of the site. How this can be integrated into campus structures traditionally designed around formal disciplinary structures merits further investigation.

Table 1. The Living Museum team

Year 1 Year 2
Title Discipline/Expertise Title Discipline/Expertise
3 Students Theater, dramaturgy 2 Students Theater, dramaturgy
1 Student Visual Arts 1 Students Visual Arts
2 Students Computer Science 2 Students Computer Science
2 Students History
2 Faculty Creative Arts 2 Faculty Creative Arts
1 Faculty Computer Science 1 Faculty Computer Science
1 Faculty History
1 Associate Director Academic Community Engagement Center 1 Associate Director Academic Community Engagement Center
2 Museum Directors Local historians 2 Museum Directors Local historians
Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York Theater, acting

The Living Museum team consists of students (all undergraduates), faculty, and community partners from a variety of disciplines, as shown in Table 1. From year 1 to year 2, the core faculty from computer science and creative arts remained the same. Most of the students were rising seniors when they worked on the project, so only two theater students continued on from year 1 to year 2. In the first year, we had two history students and a faculty member working with us to supplement the knowledge of the community partners. Their research laid the historical groundwork and was infused throughout the project in year 1 and year 2.

Building a Student-Centered Learning Space

“Give them a team challenge, help them grow as a team right away.” This is the directive we were given from our community engagement coordinator before the start of our second year on the project, and it seemed reasonable. To begin building the relationships and trust needed for transdisciplinary work, we needed a cohort-building activity, one that would get the team into a transdisciplinary mode of thinking and prepare them for the type of learning needed for the project ahead. Klein states that, “intellectual integration is leveraged socially through mutual learning and joint activities that foster common conceptions of a project or program and common assessments” and this certainly held true in this project (S119). We sent the students on a mission to the Albany Rural Cemetery, a sprawling historic cemetery located within walking distance from the Siena campus. They were to imagine that the cemetery was our community partner, and devise a project for virtual or augmented reality that might appeal to the cemetery and be feasible for our team. At the end of the day, the students would present their ideas to the faculty. Taking the students out of the context of the specific community partner that we were working with allowed them to think about transdisciplinary creation rather than focus narrowly on the project at hand, thus leaving room for creative thought and potential student-led shifts in focus. It also developed friendship and camaraderie among the students that set the stage for integrated learning and collaborative research.

Left to right: Dr Robin Flatland, Luis Villa (in virtual reality headset), and Quillan Cummings. The year 2 computer science team. Photograph by Sergio Sericolo.

Undergraduate transdisciplinary research begins with transdisciplinary learning, and this commitment to learning must be shared by the faculty, students and community partners. While the introductory activity was certainly helpful for the undergraduate researchers, it was also a turning point for us. We quickly realized that the act of collaborating on developing and implementing a problem-based experience also brought us together as a faculty community and allowed us to begin thinking about them as a group of students we would all work with, rather than feeling that we could only work directly with the students in our own disciplinary group. We discussed the capabilities and characteristics of each student and learned how many connections they already shared. In addition, the energy the students brought to this task energized us, and we continued to work together to develop problem-based learning tasks throughout the summer.

In this learning space, we were careful to engage students as partners in research and learning. Healey, Flint, and Harrington state “only where students are given a significant amount of autonomy, independence, and choice can this be considered partnership” (3). While we have many disciplinary skills to teach them, we were partners in learning in this transdisciplinary space. This forced us to focus on leadership and interpersonal skills over research content, which in turn enabled us to recognize opportunities for teachable moments. For example, when three of the student researchers and two actors in period costume traveled to the partner site with a 360 camera, we knew all had been rehearsed and carefully planned. Everything went off without a hitch except for the fact that the camera had been on when it was meant to be off, and off when it was meant to be on. When the students came to deliver the bad news to the faculty, we did not resolve the issue for them, but worked together to establish a solution. We could have certainly cut that part of the virtual reality experience, or called the community organization ourselves to explain the situation, however, allowing the space and time for setbacks and minor failures to become teachable moments is paramount to teaching students about leadership. The students contacted the actors, rescheduled the shoot, and grew in confidence. While the students ultimately delivered a good quality product, the process of learning how to take responsibility and engage in productive conflict are consistently mentioned by students as an important element of the program.

Higher education in the United States is based on a 19th century Germanic model, a fallacy of neutrality and specialization, and our students have come to expect both hyper-focused disciplinary teaching and faculty as givers of knowledge. In order to break this antiquated “habit,” it is important to teach disciplinary approaches, while also creating spaces for transdisciplinary learning and collaboration, ones that are student-centered, problem-based, and relationship driven. This commitment to co-creation of knowledge minimizes power differentials and sets the stage for students to engage fully in the academic transdisciplinary space.

Defining the Academic Transdisciplinary Space

In the first year of the Living Museum Project, the team worked within a multidisciplinary framework, each in our own field creating work that engaged with the community partner. The visual-art students created artwork and graphic visualizations; the computer-science students created a virtual reality application allowing users to virtually explore the site as it was in the 1850s; the history students created an annotated list of the museum’s original document collection; and the theatre students wrote an original full-length play about the historic inhabitants of the site. We visited the community partner and communicated with the partner as a team, but worked in our own disciplines. The students were engaged with one another in a limited manner, and presented their individual work at the Researching New York conference.

We began to pivot from an interdisciplinary to a transdisciplinary mindset near the end of our first year working together. Our visual-art student had reached an impasse in their current work, and offered to create digital wallpaper, based on historical data, that could be incorporated into the virtual reality environment. What started as a spur-of-the-moment decision to fill time when their own project stalled quickly transformed into something new, as the student discerned a need to know more about virtual reality development software in order to more effectively work on the design. Our computer-science and visual-art students began collaborating across their disciplines, sharing knowledge and synthesizing the result into the virtual reality environment.

Virtual reality presents a unique opportunity for educators and artists. A computer simulation of reality through a software interface, virtual reality allows for the integration of material from multiple content areas into a unified and experiential framework. It can be understood as a postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk. Packer observes that “Wagner used the mechanisms of the theater, as we would the computer today, to transport the viewer’s mind, emotion, and senses to an otherworldly place where the perception of reality is reconfigured by the artistic construction” (160). The phrase, artistic construction is critical. It is effectively designed user interfaces, graphic visualizations, and narrative/experiential elements that allow virtual reality to simulate reality. All of these elements collectively are beyond the scope of any one student, professor, or creative professional to achieve. Just as the production team for a video-game or CGI movie would bring together programmers, artists, writers, actors, and others, our Living Museum team has brought together the skills and knowledge from four different fields to achieve a unified vision. While we initially conceived of our project as multidisciplinary, it was soon evident that we were working with “[problems] that cannot be divided,” (McClam and Flores-Scott 232).

Before the start of the second year, we decided to embrace that change. We realized that a more integrated model worked better, featuring weekly meetings and a great deal of communication as a team. We utilized team-building activities that were focused on exposing the group to other virtual reality experiences. For example, we traveled together to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to see Laurie Anderson’s Chalkroom and To the Moon installations. The computer-science students organized another team activity in which the group spent an afternoon “playing” with a variety of virtual reality content and watched a 360 video production of Hamlet.

Our goal was to create an integrated virtual reality experience. At team meetings, we established a theme and structure for the virtual reality experience. Students and faculty talked about what they could bring to the project; e.g., the theater students had written a period play and had access to a 360 degree camera and actors, the art student was interested in sketches of period clothing and could digitize and enhance original historical documents, and the computer-science students shared their research on the capabilities and limitations of the virtual reality development tools. The team meetings created a common space of mentoring and educating around the shared goal.

Within this group-oriented structure, a further transformation took effect. Students soon left the confines of their disciplines as they realized that new skills and modes of thinking would be required to make this project a success. Our students continued to rely on the skills honed through the computer science, visual art, and theatre curriculum, but they were able to learn from each other, modify their methodologies to suit the project goals, and accommodate the necessity of acquiring new skills. In other words, we arrived at a “fusion of disciplinary knowledges (sic)” (McClam and Flores-Scott 232) that gave rise to something new.

Developing Urgency in the Community Space

“We must do a fundraiser for the partner toward the end of the project.” Our community engagement coordinator was firm on this part of the process, even in year 1, as it would bring together the community engagement elements and create a culminating effect. While some comments like, “maybe next year when we are more comfortable” or “let’s have them present to each other first” were mentioned, we all quickly understood how important this fundraiser would be to the research, the student learning, and to the nonprofit partner. In a sense, all of our work is for an audience, whether it be in an academic journal or public-facing event. Computer science, visual arts, and theatre are all disciplines in which there is a fundamental understanding that the work will sooner or later reach its audience. For visual-art and theatre students, there is an expectation that work will be showcased to the public, even if it is presented as a work in progress. In year 1, for the computer-science students, anticipating the public demonstration of the virtual reality application exposed the challenges of developing and deploying reliable, user-friendly software. Since the typical classroom programming assignment does not get executed by anyone other than the student and the teacher, it was their first experience writing software that others would use. This pushed them to add features users would enjoy and to make the virtual reality user interface intuitive.

Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York preparing to perform at the year 2 fundraiser. Photograph by Michael Lounello.

A project like this, with so many moving parts, benefits from external urgency, and aids student researchers in overcoming the common hurdles of the research process. Rich, diverse community outlets for the work allow the research and creative activity to do more and be more. A connection to the community makes the work more meaningful to its creators than a simple paper or campus presentation, as well as adding incentive to create work that will be of sufficient quality to share with a broader public beyond the academy. Work can be both academically rigorous and meaningful in our communities: the two are not mutually exclusive. As McClam and Flores-Scott suggest, “transdisciplinarity cannot function or exist within the abstracted, decontextualized knowledge spaces produced within the disciplines. Doing transdisciplinarity . . . requires the application and bridging of our disciplinary practices within the messy complexity of the ‘real’ world” (9). Often traditional models neglect to include the community space, or it is incorporated as something of an afterthought. Within our model, this “real world messiness” is intrinsic to the process. The students must learn to balance the community-focused elements with academic accomplishments. Alongside their work with the community partner, the year 1 student cohort presented their work at the Researching New York Conference; the visual-art student submitted work to the Historic Albany Foundation for their annual fundraiser, “Built: Albany’s Architecture Through Artists’ Eyes” at the New York State Museum; the theatre students in year 2 submitted their original play to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, saw it move up to compete at the national level from the regional level, and are seeking publication. All students who take part in the project showcase their work in the form of research posters at Siena’s academic celebration, thereby engaging in traditional academic activities alongside community engagement.

The day of the fundraiser for our community partner in year 1, the rain had cleared up just in time for our outdoor event, though the heat and humidity had not. In this community/real world environment, we witnessed our students directing the Black Theatre Troupe actors, who would be doing a dramatic reading of the play they had just researched and written, the computer-science students giving virtual reality tours to eager attendees, and the historically correct portraits and landscapes–which would later be used in further fundraising efforts–were displayed on easels. It was a gratifying and encouraging experience to witness the hard work and professionalism of the students as they engaged with the audience. This event at the end of year 1 prompted an even more integrated model for year 2. Both events focused on the soft skills, the “in-between” skills, that highlight the importance of transdisciplinary research on everyone involved.


In this article, we demonstrated how a community engaged undergraduate research project, The Living Museum Project, creates spaces for student-centered learning and transdisciplinary academic work, with a sense of urgency created in the community space through the development of outward facing products. We provided examples of how we cultivated these spaces through shared activities and giving students autonomy and room to fail. We described how the common goal of developing a virtual reality experience connected the work across the disciplines and created a level playing field where the disciplines were dependent on each other for the success of the project. Finally, we showed that the integration of a community partner fundraiser motivated the work and supported the project’s longer-term academic goals. Having completed our two-year collaboration with the Underground Railroad site, the Living Museum Project team is now applying what we have learned to working with a new local historic house museum and leveraging our past successes in seeking external funding.

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