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.

Students enroll in the iCSL courses for different reasons, including: getting to know people from other backgrounds, engaging in interdisciplinary collaboration, connecting to the local community, contributing to societal change, standing out from their peers, building a network, and broadening their horizons. Another driver is the interest in one of the iCSL topics.

In this video, four students that participated in iCSL1 in 2019 share their experiences:

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).

The annual event that is an integral part of the iCSL1 course, was organized on the 10th of December 2019. It took place at the school and community hub Calvijn College in Amsterdam Nieuw-West. At the event, students facilitated 7 dialogue sessions with more than 70 participants. The meeting focused on the topics ‘Connected City’ and ‘Clean City’. Neighborhood residents, representatives of wellbeing organizations, local government officials, and academics had very constructive conversations about these topics, as one of them put it: “It was very inspiring to me to think about these topics together”.

After the central opening of the event, dinner was served. University students and high school students of Calvijn had prepared the dinner together, using left-over product from local stores. During the sustainable dinner, participants visited the Inspiration Market which showcased past projects in which students and the city collaborated.

The evening moved on with dialogue sessions about the topics of ‘Connected City’ and ‘Clean City’. The participants divided into seven groups for in-depth conversations of these topics. The aim of these sessions was to create a common understanding of issues in the neighbourhood considering connectedness and cleanness. These issues are the starting point for future research projects by students. This way, student projects are designed together with the neighborhood to direct them towards the issues that are really relevant. Summaries of the dialogue sessions about Connected City and Clean City 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