Drawings that reveal educational leaders’ views of STEM education
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How can STEM education be visualised?

Drawing as a non-textual approach in STEM education reveals the significance of discipline knowledge and generic skills.

Drawing, serving as a non-textual approach, permits alternative forms of expression untethered from predominant language-based techniques. Multimodal data collection strategies like drawing supplement traditional data acquisition methods, such as interviews and open-ended questionnaires, facilitating reflection upon subtle details in a manner that may elude oral and written expressions.

An Australian interdisciplinary research team conducted the present study, specialising in mathematics education, science education, pure science, and STEM education. The team, led by Vesife Hatisaru, an academic at Edith Cowan University, was supported by Garry Falloon from Federation University, Andrew Seen and Sharon Fraser from the University of Tasmania, Kim Beswick from the University of New South Wales, and Markus Powling from Macquarie University. Data collection was underpinned by the Draw a STEM Learning Environment (D-STEM) approach, earlier developed by Hatisaru and Fraser (2021). The D-STEM instrument comprised visual and written elements and was designed to encapsulate individual perspectives on STEM learning environments. This article reports on the responses of a representative sample of school principals and teacher educators.

Background of the research

Misgivings and misunderstandings have emerged in relation to the transition towards a more practical, hands-on approach within STEM education, potentially resulting in a ‘dilution’ of subject matter that compromises the integrity of the knowledge affiliated with each STEM discipline. Certain educators assert that teachers may lack particular conceptual knowledge. While co-learning strategies could be sufficient in some instances, others contend that the primary advantages of STEM learning lie in the accomplishments of communication and teamwork outcomes.

We embarked on an exploration of the types of knowledge (for example, scientific disciplinary knowledge) potentially esteemed by school principals and teacher educators and the sort of knowers (for instance, a student or a STEM-educated individual) that might be most recognised. We employed the Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), a social realist approach to knowledge. Taking inspiration from the earlier work of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), which defines generic skills applicable across various training areas, we sought to understand participants’ perceptions of the following skills that a STEM-educated individual might possess:

  • basic/fundamentals (literacy, number use and technology); 
  • people-related (communication, interpersonal, teamwork, customer service);
  • conceptual/thinking (collecting and organising information, problem-solving, planning, learning-to-learn, thinking innovatively and creatively); and 
  • skills related to the business world (e.g., entrepreneurship).

The study was built on Hatisaru et al. (2020), which deployed the D-STEM instrument as part of a project financed by the Australian Department of Education, Skills, and Employment (DESE): Principals as STEM Leaders – Building the Evidence Base for Improved STEM Learning (PASL). Comprising expert teacher educators in STEM, the PASL research team developed a comprehensive range of professional learning modules to bolster the principals’ leadership in STEM education. The research question guiding the study was: What are the school principals and teacher educators’ perceptions of STEM education as revealed by their STEM depictions and descriptions?

Research methods and example responses

The study included twenty-one primary and secondary school principals (SP) from New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern and Australian Capital Territories. Twelve teacher-educators (TE) from across the nation, representing eight different universities, participated. As an introduction to PASL, participants completed the D-STEM instrument, sparking a detailed discussion about their comprehension of STEM and related educational practices. This instrument employed cues to stimulate drawings, with two primary question prompts and five accompanying prompt statements, as delineated below:

  1. Think about the teachers of STEM and the kinds of things they do. Draw a STEM learning environment.
  2. Look back at the drawing and explain your drawing so that anyone looking at it could understand what your drawing means.
  • STEM is…
  • STEM involves…
  • A teacher of STEM knows…
  • A STEM capable person can…
  • A person develops STEM capability by…

Participant responses to the five prompts were coded using the inductively generated themes of knowledge (indicating disciplinary knowledge or STEM-specific practices), knower (indicating generic skills including personal attributes and thinking skills), and élite (indicating both disciplinary knowledge or practices and generic skills or attributes) responses.

D-STEM drawings from the research
Figure 1. D-STEM drawings from the research
Credit. Author

Main findings and takeaways

Through the analysis of participants’ drawings, we acquired supplementary insights into the significance and value educators attribute to the teaching and learning of STEM, as well as the priority it is accorded in educational practice. This primarily pertains to the specific STEM knowledge required, in conjunction with the more generic skills and understandings prevalent in today’s society at large.

Our objective was to comprehend how participants characterise STEM as a discipline, the traits of a STEM-educated individual, and their perceptions regarding the optimal support for STEM teaching and learning. Of the 198 individual response items (visual and text), almost half emphasised STEM disciplinary knowledge or STEM-specific practices, while approximately a third underscored generic skills and personal attitudes, such as cognitive skills like reasoning and problem-solving. The residual responses referred to disciplinary knowledge or practices and generic skills or traits as outcomes from STEM education. Participants unequivocally communicated a strong belief that STEM discipline knowledge is of paramount importance and ought to be prioritised, regardless of the approach adopted for STEM education. Given the focus of subject-based ‘high stakes’ assessment on mastery of content, it is perhaps predictable that participants considered this mastery a key determinant in evaluating the quality of STEM curricula.

The responses garnered in this study align with the extensive body of literature that delves into the skills, capabilities, and dispositional advantages of interdisciplinary approaches to STEM. Generic skills and competencies such as communication, teamwork, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, resilience, and self-efficacy are all considered to be amplified through high-quality interdisciplinary STEM education. While all participants esteemed STEM-educated individuals who exhibit these characteristics, they also held the mastery of discipline knowledge in high regard. Interestingly, the participating principals seemed less preoccupied with the skills and practices that underpin the processes involved in cultivating that knowledge.

Way forward!

Fundamentally, this current study contributes several insights to the contemporary research literature in the field of STEM education. The diversity of perceptions uncovered through this research suggests that principals and teacher educators perceive STEM learning as most effective when learners can discern the relationships between the STEM disciplines and their interconnected workings within interdisciplinary projects. Mastery of STEM discipline knowledge is also underscored by participants, signifying that educational leaders value specialist understanding, replete with comprehensive knowledge and apt disciplinary skills. Finally, given life’s intricate and profound visuality in the 21st century, the adoption of visual research methods, including drawings, has gained popularity. The data procured by these methods, including the data collected via the D-STEM instrument, “supplement traditional methods [e.g., interviews, open-ended questionnaires] by capturing more intricate detail and a distinctive type of data than verbal and written methods”.

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Journal reference

Hatisaru, V., Falloon, G., Seen, A., Fraser, S., Powling, M., & Beswick, K. (2023). Educational leaders’ perceptions of STEM education revealed by their drawings and texts. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology. https://doi.org/10.1080/0020739X.2023.2170290

Dr Vesife Hatisaru is a Lecturer in Mathematics Education in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University and a Senior Adjunct Researcher in the School of Education at the University of Tasmania. Her research focuses on mathematics teachers' pedagogical content knowledge, the perceptions of mathematics held by school students, and STEM education.

Professor Sharon Fraser is Associate Head, Research in the School of Education in the College of Arts, Law and Education, as well as a researcher in science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. Sharon has widespread experience in the development, conduct and management of strategic education and research projects. With degrees in both the natural and social sciences, Sharon naturally gravitates to interdisciplinary research questions and collaborations. Her research spans science and STEM curriculum and pedagogy, across both school and higher education, and the professional development of educators, with professional learning and capacity building her conceptual drivers.

Garry Falloon is professor of STEM education and director of international engagement in the Macquarie School of Education. Previously, he was professor of digital learning in the Faculty of Education at Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand. His background includes 18 years teaching and leadership of primary and secondary schools in New Zealand, education foundation manager at Telecom New Zealand (Spark), working for Microsoft Partners in Learning, and serving as project lead for the New Zealand government’s Digital Opportunities Projects. Garry has served on numerous advisory and writing panels for eLearning policy and curriculum development, industry and sector advisory boards, and the N.Z Prime Minister's Panel of Experts for Digital Learning.

Delyse Clayden has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Studies, a Master's degree in Special Education, and a Certificate IV in Community Services. Specialising in anxiety, autism, and working with siblings, she has both personal and professional experience in living with additional needs.