Knowledge synthesis and external representations

Community member post by Deana Pennington

Deana Pennington (biography)

Over a decade ago I became interested in the role of external artifacts in enabling knowledge synthesis across disciplinary perspectives, where external artifacts are any simplified physical representation of real phenomena that enable human manipulation of complex concepts. A simulation model is one example of an external artifact. In general every simplified representation of reality is a model, whether that representation occurs in our heads (mental models), on paper (conceptual models) or in a sophisticated computer-based simulation model. And so I embarked on a research agenda to understand the role of data, models, and other forms of external representations in enabling integration and synthesis across perspectives.

This led me down a very interesting, productive research path that raised my awareness of three key theories: model based reasoning from cognitive science, boundary objects from social science, and epistemic objects from the organizational sciences. All three of these theories address the role of externalizations in enabling people to grapple with understanding complex concepts that may not be familiar to them.

Boundary object theory was initially developed explicitly in the context of collaborative efforts, and studied static objects that are created specifically to enable the passing of information across different perspectives. Epistemic objects investigated research products that continuously develop and are never fully defined. Model based reasoning explains how engaging with boundary, epistemic, and other objects impacts cognitive ability to process information.

I raise these ideas because the modeling approaches discussed elsewhere in this blog all implicitly rely on these fundamental processes of externalization. When humans create a model of a complex system, we externalize a material representation in a way that unfolds through time, integrating information across perspectives as we collectively reason about concepts that may be enormously difficult to understand.

The various practices that have been developed to assist in building models work because they support these fundamental cognitive and social processes. While I am not an expert on researching cognitive and social processes, I have become an expert at applying those theories, at least within the limited contexts within which I work. I am convinced that even a limited awareness of these theories can have an enormous impact on the effectiveness of our integration activities, because it enables us to design activities that incorporate our best understanding of the human processes involved in synthesizing knowledge across boundaries.

From 2013-2015 the Employing Modeling Based Reasoning in Socio-Environmental Sciences (EMBeRS) project was funded by the US National Center for Socio-Environmental Synthesis (SESYNC) to develop several models for how theory and practice around external representations come together in research teams working on complex systems.

We are now testing our models in faculty workshops, PhD training workshops, and in classrooms, with funding from the US National Science Foundation. We are keen to find collaborators who are willing to test our models and contribute data on the outcomes.

You can find out more on the project website ( We’d love to hear from you!

In working with a collaborative team with colleagues and/or stakeholders, to what extent are your practices designed, deliberate, and informed by theory? As your shared vision unfolds through time, are these stages captured in some way?

Biography: Dr. Deana Pennington, Associate Professor in Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso, is a physical geographer with cross training in learning sciences. Her research focuses on how changes in climate and land structure impact natural processes such as water, wildfire, atmospheric aerosols, and biodiversity, especially focused on geospatial approaches to analyzing land change and socio-environmental systems. These studies have dictated that she also gain expertise in knowledge integration and synthesis in interdisciplinary teamwork, and emerging technologies for science, including cyberinfrastructure and informatics approaches. Hence, most of her work is at the boundaries between socio-environmental science, interdisciplinary teamwork, and emerging technologies. She was a Principal Investigator on the EMBeRS pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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