The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

Exploring the Promises and Perils of Integrated STEM Through Disciplinary Practices and Epistemologies

Partners' Institution
University of the Basque Country
Year of publication
Educational stage
Secondary Level
Journal name
Science & Education
Thematic Area
Definition and characteristics of STEAM
In this study, the concept of iSTEM is examined by conducting a thematic analysis of K-12 STEM learning standards documents to identify cross-cutting themes among the practices of the various disciplines. Researchers then analyzed these themes using disciplinary epistemologies in order to highlight some promises and perils of an integrated approach to STEM education. There have been identified eight cross-cutting themes: communicating, investigating, modeling, using tools, working with data, making sense of problems or phenomena, solving problems, and evaluating ideas or solutions.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
STEM disciplines cannot and should not be taught in isolation because teachers and students struggle to make connections across individual STEM disciplines. Integrated STEM (iSTEM) is geared toward “teaching the STEM content of two or more STEM domains, bound by the STEM practices within an authentic context for the purpose of connecting these subjects to enhance student learning” (Kelley and Knowles, 2016). Moreover, mathematics, science, and engineering each comprise distinct knowledge, specialized practices, and particular skills and habits of mind.
The boundaries between different disciplines are porous and this paper identifies cross-cutting themes across practices and then analyzes those themes using an epistemological frame.
STEM students need to move away from learning only content knowledge (i.e., facts) and instead emphasize the importance of learning disciplinary practices.

STEM disciplinary epistemologies
Epistemology is “a branch of philosophy that investigates the origins, scope, nature, and limitations of knowledge”.
1. Epistemology of mathematics: Mathematics reaches much further into people’s lives and covers many more problems, techniques, and ways of understanding the world than what might be conceptualized as pure mathematics. People interact much more frequently with statistics, data science, and applied mathematics, which can be placed more broadly under the umbrella of mathematical sciences.
2. Epistemology of science: Science is the human attempt to explain the material world by examining questions such as “what exists?,” “why does it happen?,” and “how do we know?”. Knowledge can only be obtained and verified through observations and data collected from the material world. Traditionally, science has been associated with objectivism, or the belief that science progressively moves toward an improved description of reality.
3. Epistemology of engineering: Engineering knowledge concerns the design (within constraints, requirements and conditions), construction, and operation of artifices for manipulating the human environment.
It has also be considered that in the STEM disciplines, the culture of power has traditionally been associated with a White, Western, Masculine identity.

In this paper, researchers analyzed CCSSM, NGSS and ASEE standards to find cross-cutting practices and themes. They found 8 cross-cutting themes:
1. Communicating: Students are expected to interpret and share results and arguments for solutions to problems or explanations of phenomena. Using different modalities (tables, diagrams, graphs and equations) and selecting the most appropriate modality based on content and context.
2. Investigating: Students engage in inquiry, plan investigations and explore their content area according to the practice standards. It focuses on establishing a goal for investigation and the planning and carrying out a logical progression of steps to achieve this goal. This should be done by gathering evidence to support a conclusion about a solution (in engineering) and an explanation (in science) or explore the truth or a proposed conjecture (in mathematics)
3. Modeling: the construction and use of models to break down complex problems into their components, show relationships, and work toward an understanding (in science) or solution (in mathematics and engineering). Models can be physical or abstract representations
4.Using tools: Each disciplines uses tools to solve problems or to analyze data but the key is determining the most appropriate tool for use in different context.
5. Working with data: Analyzing and understanding the structure of data so that it can be developed into evidence to support a claim.
6. Making sense of problems or phenomena: Before a problem can be solved, it must be understood. So all the practices should focus on the problem understanding too.
7. Solving problems: This involves the attempt at constructing a solution to a defined problem.
8. Evaluating ideas or solutions: students should engage in evaluating the design using specifications as well as analyze a system to see where or under what conditions flaws might develop.
The identification of these cross-cutting themes serves as links between the various STEM disciplines in an integrated educational setting. Not only that, but also having students engage in a particular practice though different disciplinary lenses will help clarify and make explicit diverse ways of knowing. This could enhance their epistemic fluency and promote greater inclusion, recognition and valuing of students from groups that are non-dominant in STEM.
Creating a STEM environment that fosters multiple ways of “knowing” and is more welcoming to diverse groups of students is likely to encourage more students to take STEM classes throughout their educational journey.
The interdisciplinarity provides an opportunity for educators to explicitly highlight the history, complexities, and nuances of disciplinary knowledge, which may empower students to challenge the notion that such knowledge is immutable.
Point of Strength
This paper explained the epistemological characteristics of science, engineering, and mathematics in order to understand the differences between them. Then, by analyzing the different standards, they identified 8 cross-cutting themes that facilitate the integration of different disciplines into a project. Not only that but also give the students the opportunity to enhance their epistemic fluency.
STEM Education, Epistemology, Problem Solving, Kindergarten, Elementary Secondary Education, Standards, Intellectual Disciplines, Diversity, Inclusion, Educational Practices, Interdisciplinary Approach