Understanding coherence and integration in integrated STEM curriculum

Gillian H. Roehrig, Emily A. Dare, Elizabeth Ring-Whalen, Jeanna R. Wieselmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Background: Few tools or rubrics exist to assess the quality of integrated STEM curricula, and existing tools focus on checklists of characteristics of integrated STEM. While such instruments provide important information about the presence and quality of certain curricular components, they do not assess the level and nature of integration of the curriculum as a whole. Thus, this study explores the development of a process focused to understand the nature of integration within a STEM curriculum unit. Findings: A conceptual flow graphic (CFG) was constructed for 50 integrated STEM curriculum units. Patterns in the nature of the interdisciplinary connections were used to categorize and understand the nature of integration and curricular coherence within each unit. The units formed four broad types of integrated STEM curricula: (i) coherent science unit with loosely connected engineering design challenge (EDC), (ii) engineering design-focused unit with limited connections to science content, (iii) engineering design unit with science content as context, and (iv) integrated and coherent STEM units. All physical science units were in the integrated and coherent category with strong conceptual integration between the main science concepts and the EDC. Curricula based in the Earth and life sciences generally lacked conceptual integration between the science content and the EDC and relied on the engineering design process to provide a coherent storyline for the unit. Conclusions: Our study shows that engineering practices can serve as a contextual integrator within a STEM unit. The utilization of an EDC also provides the potential for conceptual integration because engineering is grounded in the application of science and mathematics. Integrated STEM curricula that purposefully include science and mathematics concepts necessary to develop solutions to the EDC engage students in authentic engineering experiences and provide conceptual integration between the disciplines. However, the alignment of grade-level science standards with the EDC can be problematic, particularly in life science and Earth science. The CFG process provides a tool for determining the nature of integration between science and mathematics content and an EDC. These connections can be conceptual and/or contextual, as both forms of integration are appropriate depending on the instructional goals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2
JournalInternational Journal of STEM Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 13 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation grant 1238140. Opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Funding Information:
This research was made possible by the National Science Foundation grant #DRL-1238140. The findings, conclusions, and opinions herein represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of personnel affiliated with the National Science Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Curriculum assessment
  • Integrated STEM
  • Nature of integration


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