Book Chapter

Unpacking the purposes and potential of interdisciplinary STEM


Tytler R & Swanson DM (2021) Unpacking the purposes and potential of interdisciplinary STEM. In: Mansour N & El-Deghaidy H (eds.) STEM in Science Education and S in STEM: From pedagogy to learning. Leiden: Brill Publishers, pp. 242-268.

This chapter traces the development of STEM advocacy as a globalizing modernist discourse based in national competitive wealth creation agendas. It therefore addresses the drivers for STEM in schools by way of understanding state and industry intentions and curriculum reform. The chapter describes a dual research program consisting of an examination of research, policy and public literatures, as well as an exploration of teacher and student discourses and experiences of interdisciplinary STEM in two schools. The latter exploration seeks to understand the catalysts of policy advocacy for interdisciplinary STEM in schools; the promises and challenges of interdisciplinary STEM practice; and the relation of STEM to individual STEM subjects. From the document analysis, the chapter argues that STEM is a complex construct that in its implementation in schools is captive to a range of subject and schooling political agendas. Analysis of STEM advocacy uncovered a number of key drivers, including: wealth creation; STEM as a powerful ‘meta-discipline’; innovation and critical thinking; and advocacy of interdisciplinary STEM as ‘skills’ preparation for work futures and everyday life. Examples of interdisciplinary curriculum practice in two case schools illustrated a number of themes: student engagement with new ways of thinking as a driver of change; development of more student-centred, project-based pedagogies; student engagement in deeper learning of disciplinary knowledge through meaningful problems-solving; and, the importance of temporal relations between subjects as they are conscripted to solving authentic problems. Finally, the chapter addresses the contradictory nature of STEM advocacy; that it represents, on the one hand, a narrowing utilitarian conception of curriculum that leads us away from notions of education as the development of personhood, but, on the other hand, that it opens up possibilities for more meaningful engagement of students in learning for ethical and productive lives. The chapter argues that interdisciplinarity is most advantageously practiced in terms of temporal relations between distinct STEM disciplines rather than as an undifferentiated meta-disciplinary amalgam of these distinctive ways of practising and knowing. In this sense, an argument is presented that the key challenge for STEM education is to reform STEM subject pedagogies to more meaningfully represent disciplinary epistemic practices in authentic interdisciplinary settings. These arguments have implications for international STEM education and for global advocacies of interdisciplinarity in STEM.

Publication date31/12/2021
Publication date online31/01/2021
PublisherBrill Publishers
Publisher URL
Place of publicationLeiden