Michael Flanagan

  • Thresholds, interdisciplinarity and enculturation across the engineering and science disciplines

    Michael Flanagan 
    University College London

    Jan H F Meyer 
    University of Durham

    Session 5b

    Wednesday 5 September 2007, 09.30-10.30

    Research paper

    Themes: Better understanding of the discipline

    This paper examines the role of threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2003 ) in identifying and resolving areas of troublesome knowledge arising from the intrinsic counter-intuitiveness of core ideas and from enculturation clashes within interdisciplinary science and engineering teaching. Strongly applied subjects like electronic engineering have long endured the ‘for what?’ question as departments oscillate between in-house or service teaching of, for example, mathematics and computing. Points of contention, such as fields in electromagnetic theory, may now be recognised as threshold concepts (Flanagan & Smith, 2006), thus providing an explanation of why the same concept differs as presented across disciplines. This diversity of disciplinary enculturation presents a challenge where a single course unit may bridge new and significant interdisciplinary boundaries, and also draw students from equally as varied science and engineering backgrounds.

    Our analysis in this paper will draw on example threshold concepts taught in two very different contexts. The first, resonance, appears in a multidisciplinary MSc in Nanotechnology. As teachers, we need to be aware that it appears as a very different entity when examined by mechanical or electrical engineers and by physicists. Its role in nanotechnology involves students grasping the underpinning concept applied to all three areas, though commonly they will have undergone their academic socialisation in only one of these disciplines. The second is reactive power, a deeply counter-intuitive threshold concept at undergraduate level that is taught in contrasting ways within a discipline depending on departmental focus: electrical or electronic engineering.

    The notion of threshold concepts plays a major role in questioning casual applications of variation theory (Meyer, Land & Davis, 2006), a risk that is even greater across a disciplinary boundary. It is essential that, to develop as effective teachers, we bring to bear as many tools as possible to account for student variation in learning. We believe the Threshold Concept framework to be highly relevant to guide our teaching and to support students brave enough to leave the comfort of the disciplines that they have mastered, to move into these difficult but exciting interdisciplinary areas.


    • Meyer, J. H. F. and Land, R., (2003), Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In Rust, C. (Ed.) 10th International Symposium on Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice - 10 years on. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.
    • Flanagan, M.T. and Smith, J., (2006), From playing to understanding: The transformative potential of discourse vs. syntax in learning to program. Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines Symposium, Glasgow
    • Meyer, J.H.F., Land, R. and Davies, P., (2006), Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (4): Issues of variation and variability. Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines Symposium, Glasgow