STEM Education Through the Epistemological Lens: Unveiling the Challenge of STEM Transdisciplinarity

Digna Couso and Cristina Simarro


There are several reasons why an integrated vision of STEM education has gained relevance in recent years (see Chapter 1, this volume). From claims on equipping students to address real-world problems, to concerns regarding how to prepare them tor their future jobs, there is no doubt that integrated STEM education lies at the heart of multiple discussions among the educational community (National Academy of Engineering [NAE] & National Research Council [NRCJ, 2014). Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary or meta-disciplinary approaches to STEM education are indistinctly presented by STEM education scholars as a way of improving the STEM educational field (An, 2013; Barakos, Lujan, & Strang, 2012; Brown, Brown, Reardon, & Merrill, 2011; Ejiwale, 2013; Henriksen, 2014;Jenlink, 2015; Kennedy & Odell, 2014; Merrill & Daugherty, 2009; Vasquez, 2015), with the transdisciplinary approach as the most acclaimed in the literature.

In this context of global interest and recognition tor STEM integrative approaches, however, important challenges to this proposal have also been found. These are mostly related to two factors: the need to deepen students’ learning and the need to guarantee a balanced impact regarding the learning of different STEM disciplines (Becker & Park, 2011; English, 2016). According to research, the learning ot in-depth STEM knowledge is an obstacle to many integrated STEM curricula (Chalmers, Carter, Cooper, & Nason, 2017). Moreover, research points to teachers’ difficulties in tackling such integration in STEM education due to several different reasons. For example, a lack of school administration support (Clark & Ernst, 2007), difficulties in the mutual understanding and collaboration among different STEM teachers (Zubrowski, 2002) and, more importantly, limited interdisciplinary understandings (Ryu, 2019) are challenges and tensions identified in the literature of integrative STEM, particularly in secondary and college education. Regarding the latter, research has highlighted teachers’ limited backgrounds in terms of disciplinary practices, the nature of reasoning in disciplines other than their own, as well as relations among STEM disciplines. For example, in their study following a science teacher trying to integrate engineering into his lessons, Guzey and Ring-Whalen (2018) found tensions in reconciling his identity as science teacher with the needs presented by an integrated curriculum. As the authors point out, integrating science and engineering is challenging since it requires science teachers to have a strong understanding of engineering.

In our opinion, the problems outlined in the previous paragraph are related to STEM integration based on the idea of a STEM literacy or competence that goes easily beyond each of the scientific, engineering and mathematical literacies and competences. But the perspective of a sort of global competence area (Surr, Loney, Goldston, Rasmussen, & Anderson, 2016), if not well addressed, could result in an amalgam ot the different well-researched scientific, engineering, or mathematic literacies that have not yet been developed or tested (Williams, 2011). This is because the conceptualization ot STEM as a meta-discipline (Kennedy & Odell, 2014; Morrison & Raymond Bartlett, 2009), which unites the normally separated disciplines to create new knowledge, forces us to establish connections to bridge the gap between disciplines that are closely related but fundamentally different in nature. As such, well- defined STEM integrative approaches (such as those presented in this handbook) are needed.

While we acknowledge that in real-world contexts STEM problems are tackled in an integrative way and that, in fact, STEM disciplines share important commonalities that allow this integrative approach (see Chapter 1), we highlight the fact that STEM disciplinary practices are also epistemologically different, and that there are educational benefits associated with this fact. When proposing rich and high-quality STEM integrative approaches, these commonalities and differences both should be borne in mind, as there is a lot ot educational potential in exploring and embracing them. This is why, in this chapter, we advocate including an explicit epistemological perspective in STEM integration, specifically for science and engineering.

Establishing the Need for an Epistemological Perspective in STEM Education

An epistemological lens could guide how we face the challenges of STEM integration. By reflecting on the idiosyncratic epistemic features of the different STEM disciplines, some ot the problems that STEM education research has identified in relation to STEM integration (such as restricted in-depth knowledge, the unbalanced presence of STEM disciplines or the limited interdisciplinary understanding of teachers) could be more easily problematized, detected and better equipped for a quality integrative STEM education.

An even more important argument for including an epistemological lens in STEM education is that epistemic knowledge and competence are in tact learning objectives of STEM education. The inclusion ot epistemic knowledge and competence has been agreed internationally in the new PISA trame- work (OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment), and it has been explicitly introduced in most curricula internationally, including the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in the United States. As such, nowadays there is global recognition that a disciplinary competence refers not only to the conceptual knowledge and body of practices of that discipline, but also to the epistemic objectives and values underpinning those practices (Duschl & Grandy, 2012; Osborne, 2014). In other words, one cannot be considered competent in science or engineering if she or he does not know what science or engineering is about. Hence, a good STEM education curriculum that encompasses students’ entire education should ensure students’ competence in each of the STEM fields, which includes having a mastery of the core ideas and prototypical practices of these fields (National Research Council, 2012), as well as having the (often neglected) epistemic competence in it. This entails an epistemological approach that allows clarification of the particularities of each of the STEM disciplines in terms ot their nature and value system and realizes the similarities as well as the differences among them. Such a clarification is useful for designers, adapters, implemented and reviewers of STEM education approaches in terms of ensuring the provision of a full STEM curriculum where integration of knowledge and practices of different STEM disciplines benefits from epistemological reflection.

An Epistemological Lens for STEM Education: A Model Inspired by the Family Resemblance Approach

Epistemology, or the nature of the scientific disciplines in broad terms, encapsulates the range ot practices, methodologies, aims and values, knowledge and social norms that characterize the disciplines, and which have to be acknowledged when teaching those disciplines (Erduran & Dagher, 2014). Epistemology is largely discussed in the literature on the nature of science (NOS) and to a lesser extent on the nature of engineering/technology (NOE/T). The idea behind including epistemology as a learning objective ot STEM education is that students should be able to grasp the ways ot thinking and valuing, as well as the social contexts in which science, engineering or mathematics are developed and used.

In this regard, we find it interesting to epistemologically compare the constituent STEM disciplines. In particular, we focus on science and engineering, which are often considered together and share crosscutting concepts (NRC, 2012) but also have significant differences in domains ot knowledge. For years, authors have argued different positions regarding the integration of science and engineering. From the contested “engineering as an applied science”, to that ot engineering and science sharing certain characteristics (such as methods) but differing strongly in others (such as aims [Sinclair, 1993]), epistemic underpinnings of science and engineering have largely been discussed in terms of the philosophy and epistemology of both disciplines. Interestingly, these arguments have not been fully taken into account when proposing integrative approaches to STEM education.

In order to account for these arguments, we present a model inspired by the well-known framework of the Family Resemblance Approach (FRA) to NOS (Erduran & Dagher, 2014) as a basis for highlighting the epistemic similarities and differences between science and engineering. FRA presents the possibility ot considering STEM as a cognitive, epistemic, and social-institutional system whereby each constituent discipline is contrasted relative to aims, values, practices, norms, knowledge, methods, and social context. Erduran and Dagher (2014) represented the system visually and captured the various categories in a holistic and interactive manner. Their framework allows comparing and contrasting of the constituent disciplines ot STEM as members of a “family” that share particular features, but it also highlights domain-specificity where particular knowledge and practices are specific to the respective discipline. For example, even though all sciences rely on evidence, the precise nature of this evidence can be very different between different sciences. Astronomy, for instance, relies on historical data collected from stars that are light years away. Chemistry, on the other hand, can involve the direct manipulation ot data to generate evidence in the laboratory.

We extend this discussion to the contrast of science and engineering (see the next section, “Epistemic Features of Science and Engineering”). Since a broad range of new scientific disciplines have emerged, some ot a dual science and engineering nature, the discussion will focus on epistemic differences that can be found when pursuing scientific or engineering aims. This is despite the fact that this could be done within “purely” scientific or engineering activities, but also from mixed disciplines such as nanotechnolog)' or bioengineering. In addition, some of the aspects discussed in the FRA are truly controversial and polysemic (for instance, there is not an agreed definition regarding which are engineering practices, with some proposals referring to certain “habits of mind” [Lucas, Hanson, & Claxton, 2014], and others to particular engineering processes). For the sake ot comparison, we will refer to each of these aspects (values, practices, etc.) at the abstract level necessary to illustrate epistemic contrast among disciplinary fields, rather than make a concrete or final definition of each of them.

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