Through our a priori coding, we identified several words and phrases used within interviews that we felt indicated epistemological positioning. Below, we examine the three most common epistemological alignments that we found in the data: constructionism, positivism, and pragmatism. We also describe some of the participants’ most common words that we took to indicate the above epistemologies (interpretation, right/wrong, and working, respectively). This is important for two reasons. First, it provides greater clarity regarding our own coding scheme, and second, it provides a useful baseline for others who may wish to qualitatively study epistemologies of undergraduate students. We then provide a discussion on what we are terming “boundary epistemologies,” or instances where participants suggested that they drew from multiple epistemological camps at once. Given length constraints, we attempt to provide the most relevant quotations and words for the common epistemological camps as indicated by participant language.
We understand social constructionism as an epistemology wherein truth is negotiated among members of a group and is “shaped by the cultural, historical, political, and social norms that operate within that context and time” (Darlaston-Jones, 2007, p. 19). One word that we saw as indicating this social constructionist approach was “interpretation,” or variations of this word. This word is reflective of a constructionist viewpoint because it suggests first that knowledge is not absolute and second because it suggests that individuals rely on their own contexts to make sense of—or interpret—a piece of information that they receive (Staller, 2013).
Such interpretation was linked almost exclusively to artistic themes in students’ projects. Paul, for instance, stated that different individuals could have a completely different understanding of his project, but because he conceptualized it as an artistic project, none of them would be wrong: “Because, like, art is open to interpretation” and understanding the project simply means being “able to think critically about it and, like, come to some sort of conclusion.” Paul uses the phrase “some sort of conclusion” to refer to the aims of his project. “Some sort” is a noncommittal phrase and stands in opposition to a more definitive phrase such as “the conclusion.” This suggests that Paul is more concerned with viewers using his project to think about an issue, although what and how they think about it does not have to be uniform. If it is the case that there is no uniform conclusion, it means that there is no ultimate right/wrong conclusion, and we believe that this represents an openness to multiple truths. Additionally, Paul refers specifically to his beliefs about the truth when he suggests that in one of his projects, he “fudges the truth” (more on this in the border epistemologies subsection). Anna also describes a lack of concern with what is right and wrong in her own project. Such statements indicated that whether or not there exists absolute truth, participants felt that there was something to be interpreted by viewers/users of their projects. We understood such statements as reflecting a constructionist framework because within constructionism, truth is negotiated among members and there is no strict adherence to right/wrong. Knowledge itself is a construction based on the historical and social contexts of those who hold said knowledge.
Another word that we associated with constructionism was “creativity.” The use of “creativity” was mentioned by all the participants, often in contrast to notions of a stable truth or knowledge. Dakoa described creativity as esthetic knowledge that is used when designing a product for others. In describing the creativity associated with web design, Dakoa mentioned that while there are many technical and pragmatic factors (such as coding, described within our “pragmatism” section), she considered artistic knowledge as “being creative, adding color, changing fonts,” which she further described as “personal” and “public work.” Often, personal and public are contrastive terms, but by saying that creativity entails both, Dakoa suggests that both are linked. If it is both, then creativity begins with the artist, who creates art for other individuals (public) to interpret. Similarly, Sara described a project manipulating video playback with Play-doh. In this case, she understood the project as requiring little technical knowledge to function; however, because the project was highly interactive, she claimed that it was creative and “more about the arts.” As individuals interacted with it, they were allowed to construct their own meaning based on the video playback which was, itself, contingent upon the various ways that they might manipulate the Play-doh. Both Sara and Dakoa indicate that creativity is tightly linked to artistry, and when the work of art is developed, it is then given to a public which then may construct meaning from the project.
Overall, participants understood that as individuals interacted with their projects, each would construct a different meaning. Our participants ultimately suggested that this was because the creative nature of their projects meant that no interpretation was necessarily correct. Rather, there exists an interplay between the viewer and the project itself where the truth that they create may be multiple.
Positivism/“right” and “wrong”
On the other hand, positivism indicates a belief in a stable and absolute truth that transcends human interpretation (Darlaston-Jones, 2007). We saw various indicators of positivistic approaches to knowledge, including deference to expert knowledge. Anna, for instance, stated that when she had a problem, she “talked to [her professor], since he has some knowledge of AR [augmented reality].” On the other hand, Maria described being hesitant to speak to certain professors because she felt that their knowledge did not align with her own interests, and she was concerned that she would be told that her project was incorrect. In yet another instance, Dakoa described instances of having to learn code and asking the teacher for help because she struggled to develop the “right” syntax when coding, and she enjoyed being able to see what she did “wrong” by going over her codes. In all of these cases, knowledge is something to be possessed by certain individuals who specialize in holding such knowledge. The use of a right/wrong binary (Maria, Dakoa) or professors as holders of specific knowledge (Anna) suggests that such knowledge is associated with a transcendental truth. It is possible that asking for an expert opinion could be a matter of constructing knowledge together: had our participants couched such discussions in terms of, say, spit balling, weighing ideas, or finding direction for their projects, we certainly would have understood these as negotiations where truth has a degree of relativity (constructionism). However, in these cases, students saw knowledge as a binary between right and wrong rather than a negotiation. This binary is also observed in Perry’s (Perry Jr., 1999) scheme of cognitive development within college students: often (especially) lower division college students believe that experts possess correct knowledge, what Perry refers to as a right/wrong dualism. Under Perry’s scheme, it is only through experience that students can learn to question the assertions of such authorities and develop a more relativistic stance toward knowledge.
Additionally, we also observed relaxation of positivistic beliefs, which we coded as post-positivism. Anna, who earlier in the interview had deferred to knowledge held by her professor, also stated “Umm, I mean,/ I don’t think there is always a right answer/ of what makes something usable,// but there are certainly guidelines/ maybe that we can try to find.” This statement shows that at this moment, Anna is relaxing the notion that there is a single right answer (positivism), but believes there are still possibilities to arrive at something that is correct (post-positivism) (Staller, 2013). The use of “guidelines” suggests that there are still design principles or sign markers that indicate an individual is headed toward a correct answer.
Pragmatism is the belief that knowledge is derived from its utility or explanatory/predictive power for current and future actions. This is the most common epistemic belief we expect to see in engineering where focus is often on an end product or outcome. We saw several instances of pragmatic approaches to projects in our data. Anna mentioned “I would say/ if you understand something,/ you can teach it to other people,/ you can take it outside,/ take it on your own/ and apply it to any,/ you understand it.” Here, the language of application, “take it,” and teaching focuses on the utility of the understanding, its transferability to other domains that indicates a pragmatic epistemology at this moment. Students seemed to be drawn to this pragmatic approach, as Dakoa mentioned “sometimes it’s kind of fun/ to figure out what you did wrong/ or um, see like what’s not working/ and what is” with reference to performing computer coding as part of her project. The use of “working” was a common indicator for a pragmatic criterion for students’ evaluation for engineering skills, as many students did not seem to return to the engineering side of their project after they got something working. We did not see many instances of linguistic indicators for pragmatism when students were describing the creative or artistic side of their projects.
In fact, “technical knowledge” was often used to indicate what we understood to be a more pragmatic stance, but it was often contrasted to “creative” or “artistic” knowledge. For instance, as mentioned above, Dakoa acknowledged that the technical side of website design is what “[gets] that working.” We additionally see this with Miranda, who like Dakoa, describes the technical versus creative as a kind of process. One must understand the technical and functional side of a project before addressing creative aspects: “as you learn more techniques, you can be more creative.” But, as both technique and creativity come together, the project becomes “best.” We understand technicality in this case to be a kind of tool that allows for creative aspects within the project to function creatively.
Overall, students used a number of epistemologies as they engaged in their studies at the intersection of art and engineering, most notably positivism, constructionism, and pragmatism. Individual students did not use one type of epistemology solely, but rather shifted their understanding of what knowledge they deployed and utilized in context for each project/assignment. To better describe this concept, we employ the concept of “boundary epistemologies,” adapted from Star and Griesemer’s (1989) idea of “boundary objects.” A boundary object is an information that might be used or understood differently from discipline to discipline. Just so, a boundary epistemology is a way of thinking or constructing knowledge that might receive different value from discipline to discipline. Students’ epistemological approaches must be malleable to fit across the boundaries that they are required to cross as disciplines come together, allowing students to understand knowledge in different ways as they interact among disciplines. Below, we provide four examples of this epistemological bordering as students began to describe learning art- and engineering-based tasks within the AME program. We bold italicize the epistemologically oriented words within the results for two reasons: first, we believe it helps readers to easily locate different epistemologies we found in the data. Second, we hope it helps to represent the kaleidoscopic nature of epistemologies present, and how these are bordered, boundaried, fluid, and shifting depending on the context. For instance, Paul stated that, “with engineering, it seems a lot easier because it’s like just a matter of being taught it and doing it enough to where you’re, you don’t have to think about it. Understanding in an artistic perspective, though, is harder to teach because I think it requires critical thinking skills.”
The above quotation brings two epistemological stances into conversation with each other. Paul recognizes the dominant, positivist epistemology that underlies much engineering work, seeing it as “easier” because there is a stable truth to learn: that truth exists, it must be integrated into one’s existing knowledge structure, but it does not need to be critically examined because it is a transcendental form of knowledge. On the other hand, Paul contrasts this stable knowledge to that of art, which is interpretivist and “requires critical thinking” to approach. Paul elaborates on the idea of critical thinking, describing it as thinking “about, like, what you’re creating and what it conveys.” Paul sees art as a rhetorical negotiation between the product and the way that the audience will interpret it—it requires that one consider one’s social environment as well as the message that one wants to produce through artistic representation. This anticipates a constructionist epistemology, one wherein meaning and knowledge are a construction between social entities. While these may seem like disparate ideas (a positivistic and stable knowledge in engineering; a representational and socially constructed knowledge in art), Paul later described blending the two: “strictly with like an engineering project you just have to think about whether it’s going to work or not…in [a AME] project, it’s a little bit of both, you have to think about what you’re trying to convey but also if the tech is going to work.”
The concept of a project “working” is suggestive of what Psycharis (2018) refers to as a “practical epistemology,” which is not concerned with the nature of knowledge and reality per se, and acknowledges that a product that can only work under a framework where certain facts are non-negotiable; there is a truth that must be assumed for engineering projects to work, which is simply practical for Psycharis. At another level, as indicated by the conjunction “but,” which serves to create a juxtaposition with the working project, Paul wishes to express a message. In this case, the student must adopt a more socially constructive viewpoint, one where knowledge/truth/meaning is negotiated among members of a group.
We see epistemological bordering described by several of our participants. Maria, describing her desire to get an arts-based job such as animation, stated “but to be realistic, I want to get a real job. And, I want to get up to date. What’s going on out there… I know there are some jobs that say, if I want to be an animator, I need to know a little bit of coding. Or I have to be realistic that I can’t.”
To better situate this quotation, it is important to note that Maria identified as an artist, one who relied primarily on creativity to solve her coursework. Throughout the interview, Maria made reference to the fact that she saw herself as an artist despite the fact that she “would love to be an engineer.” She acknowledged that she simply did not have the mind of a mathematician or engineer; however, there was a clear respect for positivistic and pragmatic knowledge (as suggested by her need for “a little bit of coding” even as an animator), and she saw that type of knowledge as helping her to secure a job and “be realistic.” The word “realistic” itself suggests an onto-epistemological view of a static type of reality that exists in math-based disciplines (positivism) but is not present in arts-based disciplines. The word “but” implies a juxtaposition to her statement that she wanted a job that was highly creative, wherein “reality” as unartistic and uninterpretable serves as this juxtaposition. While she strongly identified as an artist, she felt that practically, she had to employ a more transcendental understanding of reality than an artist might. In this way, there was a negotiation between Maria’s own interest in art (constructionism/interpretivism) and some practical reality adopted by engineers, one which she mentioned needing to better access several times throughout the interview.
A third example of this epistemological border crossing can be found in Miranda, who explored the representing connotations and feelings associated with words. Miranda’s concept for the project was to place monitors around a room with microphones that would pick up the words that people were saying. The software would then identify the words and play back videos that others created associated with those words. Here, her interest was markedly post-structural—words and meanings among groups are necessarily unstable and may reference different ideas depending upon the user of the word—and throughout the interview, she made reference to having an interest in how people mediate difficult-to-describe emotions to one another. On the other hand, for her project to work, she needed to rely on “coding and programing to get everything, kind of reacting together” which she later described as “concrete.” Ultimately, according to Miranda, assessing whether or not everything is reacting correctly is determined by whether or not it works. In this case, we see a blending of three epistemologies, one that is post-structural in its understanding of language but still informing a more artistic, representational goal, as well as a more “concrete” empirical approach that makes possible these representational elements. Miranda knows that she has done what she wants to do when “it works,” a pragmatic approach, one reminiscent of the practical epistemology referred to by Psycharis (2018). There is not a concern for the “truth” per se, but the way that various discrete epistemological approaches come together to create both a representation and something that works within the parameters of both a social and a technical reality.
A final consideration is how Paul described the way that “truth” itself must be negotiated when engineering and art come together. In describing a group project in which he created a ball that played music when rolled, he stated:
That specific project kind of falls in the middle between art and research. Because our original intention was completely art, we just wanted to be able to like make cool music. But, like, given how complicated that was and, like, our alternative solution it ended up going more into the research side of things… Yeah. And if, our code also wasn’t exactly perfect. As far as, like, doing the research stuff because, like, we still wanted, like, a sound that was, like, pretty and, like, nice to listen to. So the code was kind of fudged a little bit so that it could sound prettier. And that, like, kind of removed the, the truth, the trueness behind the research stuff. So yeah it’s kind of in the middle and it could go either way.
Paul did not elaborate on what it means to remove the truth from the code or the research, but we infer that he adopted a positivist/rationalist epistemological stance when referring to his engineering research, which he contrasts to being “completely art” using the conjunctive “but.” For the code to be true, it had to look a particular way, and the numbers had to come together to form a “true” answer. Like the first example, however, the project had a performative aspect; it had to produce pleasant music, and an audience had to be considered, which becomes a result of imperfect coding (the conjunction “so” suggests this cause and effect). Once this became a consideration, a positivistic truth became less important when compared to the affective response that the music might produce in its listeners, a more constructionist concern. As such, the “truth” had to be “fudged.”
We see how, in the context of a STEAM program, different conceptions of what is true and what is knowledge become valuable to different ends. While a pragmatic, positivist, or rationalist epistemology might be useful in informing physical design or coding, knowledge of emotional reactions, intuition about human behavior, and non-empirical value (axiological) judgments informed other aspects of these engineering projects, particularly when considering the artistic side. As such, students had to fluidly move between epistemologies, sometimes weighing them against each other to meet certain ends, sometimes fudging or changing mid-project what counts as “truth.” As Paul put it, when developing an arts- and engineering-based project, “I think, like, just being aware of different aspects, even if it’s not what you think you know you have to test both sides, you have to think of everything, think how it all effects something.” This “think of everything” necessarily entails a crossing of epistemological boundaries, testing the empirical and positivistic aspects of the project, but considering how the project might be integrated, constructed, and interpreted within a social environment.
Student identification with arts and/or engineering
This epistemological boundary crossing proved difficult for some students because they perceived certain kinds of knowledge as taking precedence in the program. This perceived prioritization of knowledge, always characterized as empirical/positivist/rationalist knowledge, forced students to make decisions that they may not have otherwise made and, in some cases, led them to characterize themselves as deficient. Due to the lengthy nature of discourse analysis, we provide four examples of this. Miranda characterized engineering and art as being concerned with the tangible and intangible, respectively. When asked if engineering has any intangible qualities, she stated:
I think there are, and I think of it as more of, like, a problem solving kind-of-way though, where I feel like personally with art, there’s no one answer to something, and I feel like that can be applied to a lot of things that are done in the engineering aspects of AME, but I feel like for me it takes a much higher level of skill to get to that point where you can intuitively or just know what options are available that are also considered correct options. So I think the level I’m at, no, because I need a result, and so I need to know which is the correct way to do something, but I think if, once I delve more into it and am more comfortable with using different types of things, then it becomes what could be the best, and then it becomes something that has its own character to it.
At another point in the interview, Miranda identified as an artist rather than an engineer; she prioritized art in her life. However, the language she uses to describe her experience with engineering (“correct options,” “I need a result,” “the correct way,” “what could be best”) suggests that she sees a necessity to adopt a more positivistic/rationalist mindset. Miranda, at least “at the level [she is] at,” is unable to apply an artistic approach to engineering because of disciplinary constraints (needing a “correct” result). Even at a higher level that Miranda alludes to, where “you can just intuitively know which is the correct way,” the artistry comes from (empirical) experience working within engineering. The message that Miranda conveys seems to be clear: there is a kind of correct truth in engineering that cannot be ignored. Moreover, this truth is often at odds with more intangible ways of knowing. This observation dovetails nicely with the previous example, wherein bringing an artistic way of thinking “fudges” or “removes the trueness” behind engineering designs.
However, Miranda used language within the interview that showed both a desire for and a feeling of deficiency in this type of “correct” knowledge. She stated several times throughout the interview that she would like a greater grasp of engineering knowledge; however, she additionally identified a heavy engineering focus within the program: “I would say that for right now I honestly feel like AME is specifically for me at least, focusing more on the engineering kind of side of things, and then kind of not expecting you to know the artistic side.”
If it is the case that engineering and the kind of knowledge/approach associated with engineering is the primary focus of her coursework, then we might expect that she, who identifies as an artist, might feel deficient. While students had to negotiate epistemological borders, they also had to come to terms with types and use the kinds of knowledge associated with engineering, lest their product be untrue (Paul) and therefore deficient (Miranda).
Turning attention more closely to Paul, who also identified as an artist coming to the AME program, the theme of epistemological struggle recurred throughout his interview. At one point, he compared himself to those that he perceived as identifying as engineers: “I feel like for them it’s like really easy because it’s, it’s something it’s a skill you know, like, for them it’s something like, oh yea easy cake. But for me, it’s like, ‘What is it? What is that?’ They’re already going to the looping, and I’m still in the ‘But, why?’” In this case, Paul’s deficiency in being able to approach problems as an engineer marks him as an outsider. There is a clear me/them mentality that pervades the second half of his conversation, but it is especially clear in the final two stanzas. He refers to “it” (knowledge of engineering) as a “skill,” but it is a skill “for them” (engineering students). Using the word “them” along with the juxtaposing “but” suggests that Paul sees himself in contrast to engineers. The word “skill” suggests that what these engineers are doing exists beyond abstract knowledge. Instead, it involves a practical application of knowledge, but Paul is unable to move into this realm of practicality with his fellow students: “they’re already/ going to the looping,/ and I’m still in the/ “But, why?” This may also be a result of his identity as an artist, which he describes elsewhere in the interview as being concerned less with the practical (“doing the looping”) as it does the abstract and representational (“But, why?”). His closing lines further show the me/them mentality that pervades much of his interview. In this case, he is being left behind by those with more “skill” than him. In sum, what we see is a lack of identification as an artist in what Paul perceives to be a discipline that is primarily engineering. This is not to say that he resents the program, but he feels some degree of deficiency and perhaps shame in his inability to master both the artist and engineering aspects of his program. He clearly sees a value in engineering, and throughout the interview, he continually made reference to wanting engineering knowledge, enough so that at one point he apologized for his lack of knowledge. The issue is simply that he does not understand the material, a problem that through discourse analysis; we find he attributes to his personal and epistemological identity.
Both Miranda and Paul explained that they saw themselves as artists coming into the AME program. Some students, on the other hand, had stronger engineering backgrounds, and their experience was largely positive. Sara for instance, transferred from an electrical engineering program, and for her, the AME program was “freeing.” She described a project wherein she designed a periodic table of elements that individuals could step on. As individuals stepped on different elements, a speaker would provide information about the element. She liked the course that included this assignment because:
Before taking the class, I wasn’t really, I just, I wasn’t thinking, like, big enough or I wasn’t thinking of different possible ways to do something. There’s one way to do this. That’s the best way. And after that class, there’s tons of ways you could do things, like, there’s no, like, limit. And you just like think broader about things.
Like Miranda, we see the idea of “the best way.” Before taking an AME course, she maintained that there were specific ways to go about solving problems: positivistic, single answers. We see “limit” appear in her language, and in two other instances, she refers to the “creative freedom” that the program offered her. Words such as these suggest that she felt stifled, perhaps even imprisoned in her former program, as her former program is her point of comparison. Additionally, phrases like “not big enough” and “broader things” apply the metaphor of size/scope to the concept of ideas. This ties closely to the idea of freedom that she feels; if we imagine the scope of ideas as an area of large size, it provides her a larger area to explore, or, in the domain of ideas, more possibilities, a fact which she enjoyed.
Others with a strong engineering background felt similarly about the freedom offered by the program. For instance, Anna compared the program with her background in computer science: “I think some of these classes are a bit easier than CS classes, but because I have that background in programming so I have that experience going in. I think they are more fun… because it’s not right or wrong, like it works, but you can spend as much time as you want to make it look good.” In both Sara and Anna’s experience, having a background in technical or engineering knowledge seems to make learning easier. As with earlier examples, we see that Anna is less concerned about what is right or wrong, and truth is a more pragmatic or practical concern about what “works.” But what is interesting is the final lines: “you can spend as much time/as you want to make it look good.” Like Paul, there may be some competition between making a project work and the esthetic qualities of the project. However, while Paul described esthetic concerns as “fudging” the truth, Anna does not seem to address truth or knowledge at all here—instead, the esthetic concern is simply a matter of making it “look good.” The fact that the esthetic side of her work is “fun” and “easy” is not bad in and of itself, but the fact that it is relegated simply to “looking good” suggests that knowledge in the artistic sphere is superficial.
These four examples provide representation from students who identified more strongly as artists and some who identified more strongly as engineers. Those who identified as artists seemed to struggle to integrate positivist ways of knowing into their identities, and they used language that was indicative of deficiency. On the other hand, students who felt comfortable with positivist/rationalist ways of knowing enjoyed the creative aspects of integrating art into scientific discourse. Demerath (2012) would support this understanding: students with stronger engineering backgrounds felt comfortable because their ways of knowing were clearly valued and encouraged, and they had only to integrate artistic approaches into their work. On the other hand, students who identified as artists had to shift their entire way of understanding the world to better fit into a community that values positivist/rationalist approaches above others.