The Application of Transdisciplinary Theory and Practice to STEM Education

The Application of Transdisciplinary Theory and Practice to STEM Education

Susan Malone Back (Texas Tech University, USA), Heather Greenhalgh-Spencer (Texas Tech University, USA) and Kellilynn M. Frias (Texas Tech University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9441-5.ch003
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The authors describe the application of transdisciplinary theory and practice to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education at the undergraduate level. The modular approach which makes use of student collaboration within and across disciplines and input from outside experts holds promise for preparing students to address society's “wicked” problems – those with interconnected causes and for which a solution often causes additional problems. Transdisciplinary theory and practice are described and their application to STEM education is proposed along with a model of measuring transdisciplinary skills. Recommendations are proposed for future research on cross-cultural/cross disciplinary models, pedagogy, measuring student collaboration, determining effective partnership models and institutional supports, and the potential role of the social sciences in contributing to research on transdisciplinary practice and education.
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It has been widely accepted that modern educational curricula in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) must help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. One-way transfer of information served the needs of 19th century industry but will no longer suffice in today’s high-tech, multi-faceted economy. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and the Institute of Medicine (NASEIM, 2014) call for movement beyond the current patchwork of educational approaches to one that is integrated and multi-sectorial. Value-added skills such as creativity, analysis and synthesis, problem definition, and innovation will be required to sustain students as they enter a continually changing work environment.

In response to this need, an approach to problem solving has emerged in the scientific and education literature variously known as Interdisciplinarity, Convergence, or Transdisciplinarity (NASEIM, 2004; 2014). The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS, 2013) defines transdisciplinary as “an approach that represents a functional synthesis of methodologies and a broad point of view that combines different fields. This is a step beyond interdisciplinary which borrows techniques from different fields without integrating them to yield new concepts and approaches” (p.2). AAAS cites the example of the need to develop economically and ecologically sound replacements for fossil fuels as requiring input from chemical, systems and environmental engineering, microbiology, plant science, ecology, computational science, and economics, as well as an understanding of social change.

The transdisciplinary approach supersedes multi- and interdisciplinary practices and is better suited to addressing complex, open-ended problems because this approach transcends singular or interdisciplinary knowledge and applies domain-specific knowledge within an integrated framework. While multidisciplinarity approaches do include multiple disciplines; the differing perspectives are considered as side-by-side views on an issue. Interdisciplinarity extends beyond multidisciplinarity by integrating the theories, methods and concepts of several disciplines for the purpose of arriving at common solutions to multi-faceted projects or issues. (Cronin, 2008).

For example, math, physics, and engineering might be brought to bear in the design of a light-rail transportation system for a city in an interdisciplinary effort. A transdisciplinary approach would also incorporate knowledge from other disciplines such as marketing, finance, social science, humanities, and non-academic fields. In the light-rail example, transdisciplinarity might include input from neighborhood residents, government agencies, and civil society.

On a larger scale, researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and civil organizations have called upon the scientific community and society at large to address issues requiring sophisticated research and intervention involving a high degree of collaboration among disciplines. An example is the United Nations articulation of Millennium Development Goals which address several inter-related humanitarian crises including: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability (United Nations, 2014).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Transdisciplinarity: A fusing of theories, methods and expertise across disciplinary boundaries in which each discipline merges with the others in the formation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. New disciplines may emerge as in the case of the “New Biology” which is the result of collaborative efforts on behalf of traditional biology, physical and chemical sciences, computational science, mathematics, and engineering. Transdisciplinarity may also include perspectives and methods from such disciplines as social science, economics, and public administration as well as from civil society and a wide range of stakeholders.

Convergence: Scientific inquiry characterized by thinking beyond usual paradigms and approaching issues informed by many, integrated perspectives. The process of convergence takes place within a network of partners forming an ecosystem that facilitates basic research as well as translational applications and the potential to benefit society.

Multidisciplinarity: An approach whereby specialists from varying disciplines address common problems by each focusing on their respective areas of expertise, resulting in a side-by-side attempt to reach a solution or product.

Interdisciplinarity: A joint effort to solve a problem or develop a product in which experts from different disciplines exchange theories and methods in a process of sharing their areas of expertise. Unlike the multidisciplinary approach where there is little cross-over from one area of expertise to the other, in this process techniques are borrowed across different fields.

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