Interdisciplinary Community Service Learning

Team up with other students and partner organizations to enrich your master with societally relevant research. 

Issues such as sustainability, digitalization, globalization, and inequality are so multi-facetted and concern so many different parties that they can’t be addressed effectively from a single perspective. The Interdisciplinary Community Service Learning (iCSL) module can be followed by master students from any program and gives you the opportunity to work on these 21st century challenges together with other students and partners outside the university. As such, you get the chance to experience real-life research.

In iCSL you devote your master project to defining and addressing societal issues. You don’t do this by yourself: you’re part of an multidisciplinary student team, but also collaborate closely with companies, organizations, and governments. 

The iCSL module consists of two courses. The first course (iCSL1) focuses on the definition of societal challenges together with community members and partners. In the second course (iCSL2) you address those challenges through a collaborative research project. Both courses can be followed as an elective (if the structure and exam committee of your own program allow for that) or as an extracurricular activity besides the mandatory components of your program. In both cases, credits are awarded upon completion of the courses. You can enroll in both courses, or in either one of the two. 

The iCSL1 Course (AM_1254)
The iCSL1 course centers around the definition of challenges that are current in society and would benefit from scientific research. To do so, you engage in dialogue with the residents of the city. The event at which this dialogue takes place, is the climax of the course. The six weeks leading up to the event are used to prepare for this moment. You learn – among others - about inter- and transdisciplinarity, complex systems and persistent problems, and participatory approaches. More practically, you interview actors to gauge their opinions on the topics, and prepare the event.
The course runs in period 2 of the academic year (Novermber-December) and is 3 ECTS. Weekly face-to-face meetings are scheduled in the evening hours to prevent interference with other courses. The remaining study time will be spent online. 

The iCSL2 Course (AM_1253)
The iCSL2 course is about addressing large societal challenges. As an interdisciplinary team, you research one of the challenges defined in the iCSL1 course. Each team member devotes their own thesis, research project or internship to a discipline-specific subquestion of this challenge. In parallel to your thesis, you follow the iCSL2 course, in which you integrate the insights from the different individual disciplinary projects. In interactive workshops you exchange knowledge, integrate the insights from the different projects to synthesize a systematic view of the topic, and discuss the implications of those findings. The course ends in a large meeting (somewhat like a conference) at which you present your findings back to a scientific as well as societal audience. One of the key questions during this event is: what’s next? What follow-up is necessary to ensure real uptake of the results? Because we don’t want yet another thesis to end up on a shelf never to be looked at again. 

The iCSL2 course runs the entire second semester (period 4-6, February-June), and completion will award 6 ECTS. This means a low-intensity, long-term commitment.

By participating in iCSL you serve the society as well as yourself. The effort that you invest in your graduation project will contribute to tackling a societal issue. And you give yourself a competitive edge, as you will start building a professional network, get work experience outside the university, and distinguish yourself from your peers. So why join iCSL? To make a difference to societal challenge, to build a professional network, to stand out from the crowd, and to get out of your disciplinary and academic bubble.

To make a difference
Many student reports every year end up on dusty shelves never to be looked at again. That’s a waste of your effort. You have to put months of work into your thesis, so the result better counts. In i-CSL you work with real questions experienced by real actors such as governments, organizations, and companies. In answering those questions you work together with the partners to arrive at an end product that is of real value to them. And its impact expands beyond the commissioning partner only. Because you work on societal challenges that impact us all, so does your contribution to a solution.

To build a network
During the iCSL project you collaborate within a team of five to ten students from across the university. Moreover, each student is supervised by at least two people, including researchers and external partners. Together, you make up a team of people who are all invested in the topic of the project, including companies, governmental representatives, and students and researchers from many different fields of expertise. Throughout the project you meet with your student team regularly and with the extended team a couple of times, allowing you to connect with people that you would else never have gotten in touch with. A great boost to your professional network and a great kick-start to finding a job!

To stand out
Each year thousands of students graduate from their master programs and all enter the job market. How are you going to distinguish yourself from the crowd? After all, you want to make sure yóu get that dream job, and not one of those other countless graduates. Participating in i-CSL can be a great addition to your CV, as it will show your future employer that you have experience with real-life complex issues, on top of the theoretical knowledge you acquired throughout your academic education. Every little thing that you have done extra compared to your peers, counts.

To get out of your bubble
During your education at the university, you typically acquire a lot of specialized knowledge. This is important and serves a clear purpose. But it remains important to also look beyond the boundaries of your own discipline, own institution, own organization, or own group of friends. In iCSL you will work in a team of people that you didn’t know prior to the project, and that are diverse in terms of disciplinary background, work environment, context, expertise, and experience. As such, iCSL stimulates you to get out of your usual bubble, look beyond the boundaries of your own domain, and enrich your own world view with the perspectives of others.

The 2019-2020 run of the iCSL1 course will focus on two topics: 1) Connected City; and 2) Clean City. The topic of ‘Connected City’ revolves around digital possibilities for all Amsterdam citizens, the challenges of the digital age, and the increasingly data-driven society. The topic of ‘Clean City’ focuses on waste management, circularity, sustainability, and a living environment in Amsterdam that actively supports health and wellbeing. When you enroll in the iCSL1 course, you will – based on your personal preference - work on one either of these two topics.

For the iCSL2 project, on both of these topics at least one team will be formed. Depending on interest and number of students enrolling for the project, we may also decide to create teams on other topics as well. As the iCSL2 topics should align with the topics of your own thesis or research project, formation of the teams will always be a joint process between student and teacher (and external partner, if relevant).

As part of the module, an event will be organized on the 10th of December 2019. At this event, students will facilitate a dialogue between different stakeholders. The meeting will focus on the topics of ‘Connected City’ and ‘Clean City’. The aim of the meeting is to identify questions that matter to the city and that could be researched by students. The issues discussed will function as the starting points of actual student project. They are taken seriously and may be the first step in making real impact!

Anyone interested – ranging from local residents to multinationals – is invited to the meeting to think along about the questions that students should be researching. The meeting will take place on the 10th of December, starting at 17:15, at Calvijn College (Pieter Callandlaan, Amsterdam Nieuw-West). More information about the event can be found here.

In order to identify the current issues that are urgent in the real world, the iCSL program highly depends on collaborations at and beyond the VU. Among others, the program is shaped together with the city district Amsterdam Nieuw-West, with the VU Green Office and companies at the Zuidas.

So, have you gotten interested in the iCSL module? You can enroll for the courses on VUnet, where you can find them through their course codes (iCSL1: AM_1254; iCSL2: AM_1253). Any master student at VU Amsterdam can sign up for the iCSL module.

If you have additional questions before enrolling in the module, reach out to the coordinator of iCSL: Annemarie Horn