Approaches to Education: Interdisciplinary vs. Multidisciplinary vs. Transdisciplinary

Grant T. Aguinaldo, Envilearn, LLC STEM


Aristotle is commonly quoted as saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

That phrase should be kept top of mind when discussing any aspect of STEM, whether in regard to certification or in the classroom. However, many institutions still keep each of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) in rigorous silos, with very little — if any — integration between them. This is in spite of the growing trend of making STEM transdisciplinary. I like to think of the difference between these two approaches as STEM vs. S.T.E.M.

Taking a Transdisciplinary Approach

As a scientist, I prefer the transdisciplinary, or STEM, approach, which goes a step beyond even interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches. Here’s what each of these terms means.

A multidisciplinary approach is one where several disciplines work independently — with little to no collaboration — toward a solution. Climate change, for example, is a problem often tackled by disciplines as diverse as engineering, chemistry, policy, and finance. Because each discipline works within its own silo, they often develop solutions that are not feasible when considered through the lens of another discipline. For example, while carbon capture may be a feasible solution from a chemistry perspective, it may not be a viable financial option due to the high capital costs for the technology.

On the other hand, an interdisciplinary approach uses a level of integration between disciplines, who share a common language and techniques. Using the carbon capture example, an interdisciplinary team would seek a solution that is viable both financially and scientifically. Information from the finance team could be used to guide the scientific developments of the technology, and vice versa.

A transdisciplinary approach integrates disciplines even further, transcending the traditional boundaries to solve a problem regardless of the disciplines involved. Each discipline is fluent in the tools, techniques, and language of the others, and together they all share a general framework for thinking about problem-solving. A transdisciplinary approach would tackle the carbon capture problem by creating a constant flow of information between the disciplines, with no traditional discipline boundaries to impede it. In fact, the disciplines aren’t even seen as individual groups; instead, everyone working on the problem is part of a single team, which continuously iterates to understand the drivers that contribute to the cost and functionality of carbon capture.

Benefits of a Transdisciplinary Approach

Simply speaking, a transdisciplinary approach is the notion that new ideas are often merely a combination of many old ideas. That’s the basic premise behind Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation. In a post from my website Missing Data, I described the book this way:

Johannson’s book revolves around the concept of forming new ideas by bringing together seemingly unrelated disciplines, which, as patrons of the arts and banking moguls, the Medicis unwittingly did, thus — many claim — spurring the Renaissance. In effect, says Johannson, the melding of old concepts to spawn innovation was due to the Medicis’ patronage, which brought together unrelated industries and allowed for a then-unorthodox exchange of ideas.

So transdisciplinary problem-solving isn’t really new. And if it worked for the Medicis (and Europe in general), it can work for education.

A slightly more modern example than Renaissance Italy is the California Water Data Challenge, which unites the data community in the quest to bring safe, clean, and affordable drinking water to the citizens. In the words of the challenge’s organizers:

Data has the power to help us see challenges through different lenses, discover solutions that may not otherwise be evident, and put tools into the hands of those who need them most — empowering the community to work together in new ways.

That’s pretty much the essence of a transdisciplinary approach. To further underscore that notion, the challenge provides a wealth of open data portals, which participants are encouraged to view through whichever lenses they wish — biological, economic, ecologic, or what have you. Just look at the breadth of the challenge’s previous projects.

Binghamton University has found the transdisciplinary approach to be so successful that in 2013, it developed a new approach to hiring faculty and supporting research through its Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence (TAEs). Binghamton believes that these six varied disciplines — ranging from citizenship to data science — “can best be addressed by teams of faculty employing the perspectives and methodologies of multiple disciplines.” In other words, each of these world issues can best be tackled by team of experts with diverse areas of expertise. Some of the specific projects the TAEs are tackling include reducing the cost of solar power and enhancing energy efficiency, developing methods for efficiently operating electronic systems, and addressing watershed problems on local, regional and global scales.

As a scientist, I of course prefer the transdisciplinary, or STEM, approach, as it goes well beyond the other two approaches. But it’s not just science that can benefit from transdisciplinary methodology.

In my guest post for Teach STEM in Hawaii, I discuss how [teacher certification can benefit from the transdisciplinary approach].

About the Author

Grant T. Aguinaldo, Envilearn, LLC

Grant is a principal at Envera Consulting. As the Sherlock Holmes of environmental consulting, Grant solves current-day problems using modern tools. More on Twitter or LinkedIn.