​STEM curriculum as a site of contestation

Currently, there are competing and contradictory pressures on science, technology, engineering and math school subjects.

Go to the profile of Russell Tytler
Apr 18, 2017
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Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education holds a unique place in curriculum debate because, of all school subjects, these are the most closely associated with producing the generational expertise needed to maintain and increase national wealth.

Currently, there are competing and somewhat contradictory pressures on STEM school subjects.

First, for some time there has been concern in Australia and internationally about declining engagement of students with STEM pathways, and a fear of declining public appreciation of science.

Second, there are concerns over declining expertise in science and mathematics, as measured on international test regimes, and calls to ensure that standards are maintained.

Third, politicians, industry representatives and the media have increasingly called for a greater focus on preparing students to become critical, creative, digitally enabled thinkers. The belief is that this will equip them for a future characterized by fast changing knowledge and flexible career trajectories.

These pressures create a conflict for STEM education, which must balance a desire to develop an elite STEM workforce with the need to lift STEM capability in the general population.

The changing face of STEM education

Increasingly, the term STEM has shifted from describing a collection of disciplinary subjects to describing interdisciplinary approaches to STEM education. It is argued that such interdisciplinary approaches more authentically represent the problem solving needed in STEM professions, that they encourage more relevant curriculum activities, and that they are more engaging for students; they are cast as breaking down disciplinary ‘silos’.

The move from disciplinary subjects to interdisciplinary teaching and learning is an important debate in STEM education. As this transition is fought over, a key question concerns the role of disciplines in framing thinking and curriculum content.

Who is driving the argument for inter-disciplinary STEM? There have been some large and well-attended conferences run in Australia around STEM as an integrated curriculum activity, and there are many advocates of such approaches in academia, amongst teachers, and through professional bodies.

Lyn English for the importance of engineering as a focus for productive inter-disciplinary activities. This has some appeal, as it attempts to redress the relative absence of engineering concepts and capabilities in Australian curricula, and the relatively small numbers of students undertaking engineering in Australia compared to many countries.

Similarly, advocacy for a greater focus on digital technologies accounts for some of the emphasis on integrated STEM activities. Thus, some of the argument for STEM amounts to advocacy of increased representation of T and E alongside the traditional focus on S and M in schools.

STEM teaching in practice

So what is happening in schools? In two significant professional development programs I have been involved with, one run by Deakin University and the other by the University of Sydney, some notable similarities exist.

First, while both programs have placed equal emphasis on within- and across-discipline approaches, the assembly of teams of science, mathematics, and technology teachers generated considerable enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary planning around project work. Teachers of these subjects are energized by the opportunity to plan and teach together in new ways, and they generally report increased engagement of students.

Second, both programs utilize a variety of models of inter-disciplinary activity: extended engineering-based projects such as the design of a grandstand; restricted-time design activities, sometimes with a competitive focus; within-subject activities with an inter-disciplinary focus; development of a coherent focus on digital technologies across the individual STEM curriculum sequences; and development of purpose-built STEM curriculum units.

Experience in the US also identifies wide variation in curriculum arrangements and a lack of agreement on what an inter-disciplinary STEM approach should look like. A major US report on integrated STEM activity similarly identifies increased teacher enthusiasm, and reports some evidence of enhanced student attitudes to STEM. However, the same report found little evidence of improved learning in science, and even less for mathematics.

Mathematics teachers are often suspicious of the trivializing role assigned to the discipline in these STEM design projects. Lehrer (2016), who was a member of the US national academies committee reporting on integrated STEM, argues many of these activities represent an ‘epistemic stew’ lacking a coherent developmental trajectory. Indeed, the history of curriculum is littered with failures of integrated science, as core disciplinary interests are reasserted (Fensham, 2016).

A way forward

There are serious questions raised about the epistemic integrity of the STEM construct, given it spans disciplines that each have their own distinct knowledge-building practices, conceptual tools and ways of dealing with evidence (Clarke, 2014). Is there a meta-aspect of these STEM disciplines that transcends their individual practices? Can we articulate different, productive ways of describing disciplinary knowledge and practices to better design their productive interaction?

At Deakin we are exploring the nature of inter-disciplinarity in curriculum terms, based on a long-standing program of research that asserts the core nature of a discipline should be understood in terms of the multimodal representational systems and practices it uses to build knowledge. Learning is then understood as a process of induction into the creation, interpretation and use of the visual, mathematical, symbolic and textual representations that comprise disciplinary literacy. This program aligns with the work of Lehrer and Schauble, who design programs in which scientific and mathematical representational practices are developed in parallel over time, interacting in productive ways around real world contexts such as pond ecology, plant growth and data modeling, or symmetry and optics..

In summary, there is an urgent need for programs of research that cast new light on the nature of the STEM disciplines and their interactions. Only with such a focus will we be able to resolve the competing claims for STEM curricula to deliver disciplinary depth, promote engagement, and develop critical and creative thinking.


Clarke, D. (2014). Disciplinary Inclusivity in Educational Research Design: Permeability and Affordances in STEM Education. Invited keynote at the International STEM conference, Vancouver, July 2014. http://stem2014.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2014/07/Per...

Fensham, P. (2016). An historical perspective on STEM as a schooling goal. Paper delivered at the forum: Putting STEM Education under the microscope. Deakin University, Melbourne, October.

Lehrer, R., (2016). Perspectives on Integrating Elementary STEM Education. Paper delivered at the forum: Putting STEM Education under the microscope. Deakin University, Melbourne, October.

Go to the profile of Russell Tytler

Russell Tytler

Professor of Science Education, Deakin University