Teaching About Real-World, Transdisciplinary Problems and … – Smithsonian Magazine

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In its 2018 Federal STEM Strategic Plan, a collaboration of government agencies wrote that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education should move through a pathway where disciplines “converge” and where teaching and learning moves from disciplinary to transdisciplinary. Classroom examples help spotlight what this framework can look like in practice.
Carol O’Donnell & Kelly J. Day
In today’s K-12 classrooms, students are learning a lot more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. Today, problem- and phenomenon-based learning means that students are tackling some of the most complex topics of our times, whether it is cybersecurity, innovation and entrepreneurship, climate change, biodiversity loss, infectious disease, water scarcity, energy security, food security, or deforestation. Educators are using transdisciplinary learning to help students address deep scientific questions and tackle broad societal needs.
Convergence Education
But how does an educator, who is assigned to teach one discipline (e.g., reading, writing, math, science, social studies, or art) bring together multiple disciplines to teach about complex socio-scientific problems or opportunities? Researchers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) call this “convergence”, and say that it has three primary characteristics:
From Disciplinary to Transdisciplinary
What do we mean by “transdisciplinary?” In its Federal STEM Strategic Plan, a collaboration of government agencies wrote in 2018 that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education should move through a pathway where disciplines converge and where teaching and learning moves from disciplinary to transdisciplinary. They wrote:
“Problems that are relevant to people’s lives, communities, or society, as a whole, often cross disciplinary boundaries, making them inherently engaging and interesting. The transdisciplinary integration of STEM teaching and learning across STEM fields and with other fields such as the humanities and the arts enriches all fields and draws learners to authentic challenges from local to global in scale.” (OSTP, 2018, p 20)
STEAM education expert and author Joanne Vasquez, former Executive Director of the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), and her co-authors explain it this way:
A Classroom Example
Let’s try an example, using images selected by one of the co-authors who is a master STEAM teacher and former Einstein Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy, Kelly J. Day. Imagine you were teaching about plants so that your students can help people experiencing food insecurities in their community. This requires fundamental disciplinary knowledge about science, mathematics, social studies, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship. What would it look like to move along the pathway to convergence, from disciplinary to transdisciplinary teaching and learning?
A Pathway to Convergence
Teaching for convergence is not about replacing disciplinary teaching with transdisciplinary teaching; instead, it is about a pathway to convergence. Students, especially in the early grades, still require a strong foundation of disciplinary knowledge and skills. The transition along the pathway to convergence, from disciplinary to transdisciplinary teaching and learning, does not just happen—it is intentional, explicit, and measured.
Transdisciplinary teaching and learning that leads students along a pathway to convergence has many different names that you may be familiar with already—phenomenon-based learning, problem-based learning, place-based learning, project-based learning, civic engagement, inquiry-based learning, entrepreneurship education, and applied learning. No matter what you call it, this type of teaching is important to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s complex world. And it is becoming more common in schools, despite the barriers that exist in the U.S. (e.g., aligning with standards; finding time in the curriculum; finding common planning time to collaborate with other teachers).
Free Teaching Resources
The Smithsonian and other federal agencies that support STEAM teachers are here to help. We develop resources to support educators as they move  from disciplinary to transdisciplinary teaching and learning along the pathway to convergence. At the Smithsonian, for example, we have a front door to discoveries in science, history, art, and culture. We bring these disciplines together by integrating inquiry-based science education, civic engagement, place-based education, global citizenship education, and education for sustainable development, so that students can engage in local action for global goals, whether it is about food security or environmental justice.
Convergence education and a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning helps students develop critical reasoning skills, systemic understanding of complex issues, scientific literacy, perspective taking, and consensus building, all as they plan and carry out local actions for social good. Teachers and students across the country, with the support of the Smithsonian and other federal partners, are tackling the most pressing environmental and social issues of our time, supporting young students as they take action to address complex global issues, and helping them find solutions that address societal needs through convergence education.
Acknowledgement: This article is based on the work of the Federal Coordination in STEM Education (FC-STEM) Interagency Working Group on Convergence, under the direction of Quincy Brown and Nafeesa Owens of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The IWG is co-led by Louie Lopez and Jorge Valdes, with support from Executive Secretary Emily Kuehn.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Convergence Education framework, join Carol O’Donnell and Kelly J. Day, along with a panel of federal educators and practitioners at the Smithsonian’s National Education Summit on July 27-28, 2022. More information is available here: https://s.si.edu/EducationSummit2022 
Carol O’Donnell | READ MORE
Dr. Carol O’Donnell is Director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, dedicated to transforming K-12 Education through Science™ in collaboration with communities across the globe. Carol serves on numerous boards and committees dedicated to science education and is on the part-time faculty of the Physics Department at George Washington University, where she earned her doctorate. Carol began her career as a primary school teacher. Her TedX Talk demonstrates her passion for “doing science” and “object-driven learning.”
Kelly J. Day | READ MORE
Kelly Day is the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Department of Energy and is on the Interagency Working Group for Convergence Education. She also helps run the DOE-sponsored National Science Bowl. Prior to her placement at the DOE, Day was a mathematics teacher and in 2015 ,Day received the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.
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