October 8, 2018

Reconceiving Liberal Arts and STEM Education

I hope you’re back in the swing of the semester. Thank you for the feedback you offered in response to last month’s blog. Your input – especially when drawn from knowledge different from my own – is invaluable. I appreciate it when someone enables me to consider a topic in a completely different perspective. So, naturally, I have been reflecting on the importance of this experience for our students.

One of the values of a liberal arts education is that it grounds students in a broad variety of disciplines while affording concentrated work in one of them. It equips students with a framework of thinking to become lifelong learners, informed citizens, and live rewarding, productive lives. Pragmatically, it provides a foundation in a recognized field of knowledge that graduates need in their career or further study.

As the same time, the increasing demand for candidates qualified for high-tech jobs has compelled American institutions of higher learning to augment curriculum choices in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). While this trend continues to shape the future of economic growth and the workforce necessary to sustain it, our efforts to be responsive need not, and should not, overshadow the intrinsic value of the arts and humanities and their relevance to career success. Yet the “liberal arts vs. STEM” debate seems likely to persist.

I’d like to invite us to consider this issue in a more productive, and hopefully, inspiring way. If we re-conceive of the STEM fields and the humanities as integral parts of a whole, might we better prepare our students for when these disciplines converge in the world they will encounter? Integrating STEM education into the arts and humanities could help students expand their humanities inquires. For example, an art history major might analyze a painting using new imaging tools or dissect digital archives across time and space, opening new dimensions of knowledge. Conversely, we have large numbers of science and engineering students who could be made much better communicators and creative thinkers by learning the theoretical frameworks and analytic skills taught in humanities courses. Companies like Apple build their success on a deeper understanding of human psyche, enabled by technological advances. Employers seek competent individuals who can think critically and interact broadly.

While it’s understandable that students are concerned about securing a job upon graduation, integrating the disciplines is not just about marketability. Part of our mission as a public research university is to ensure that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are prepared to engage with the world’s problems. For better and for worse, science and society have a reciprocal relationship. While innovation fuels our economy, its pace can yield unanticipated consequences. Biotech and artificial intelligence offer unimagined futures but come with complex moral dilemmas. Many pressing issues such as climate change are both technological and human problems. We need leaders who can “connect the dots” by making connections between different paradigms of thinking.

And then there’s life. Whatever one’s primary discipline, situating the student experience in a deeper sense of what it means to be human – and understanding that others throughout history have thought deeply about experiences we have today — is essential to a meaningful life.

If we aspire to prepare our students broadly, we must demand of ourselves the same. What I’m envisioning is the knowledge to be gained from not just studying in different specialties but learning to view each through the prism of the other. How might we create such discipline-connecting opportunities? I hope you will share your thoughts and concerns. I look forward to hearing them, and — especially – considering the question with you from a variety of different perspectives.

4 thoughts on “Reconceiving Liberal Arts and STEM Education

  • This blog reminds me of the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto’s call for us to “learn to think in a new way.” I believe the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 could provide us a set of “discipline-connecting opportunities” for doing so. Specifically, realizing these global goals for everyone everywhere will require getting today’s learners aware and prepared to act across disciplines, sectors, cultures and nations.

    Helping all of humanity to thrive in perpetuity is just the sort of infinite game that Mason could play – and win – without others losing. For instance, we could pursue a calendar or academic year of catalyzing scholarship and studies to impact one global goal, like “No Hunger,” on campus, in communities nearby and far beyond. Much like our course catalog’s “green leaf” designation, academic programs and courses could be labeled to present subsets of the global goals they prepare learners to address, such as biodiversity conservation on land and/or in the water. Finally, transdisciplinary clusters of students and scholars could assemble to study and address challenges at the nexus of multiple global goals, e.g., simultaneously realizing clean water AND clean energy for all.

    Mason has a great opportunity now to use any subset of these global goals to “connect the dots” and, in so doing, join the inclusive ranks of top universities FOR the world. Should this approach become a priority, I stand ready to contribute to its success!

  • Thank you for raising the topic of multi-disciplinary education. The practice of bringing multiple disciplines into the classroom is flourishing (perhaps quietly) in several ways and in several places at Mason. But it would certainly increase our multi-disciplinary possibilities if those of us engaged and/or interested in this work knew more about each other or about the opportunities that already exist. Perhaps this conversation will be a place to begin to further develop those connections?

    In the Honors College—no one’s disciplinary home—we see a big part of our job as maximizing the learning opportunities nascent in the diverse and multi-disciplinary community that is Mason. And one of the most distinctive learning objectives of the Honors College Curriculum is to prepare students to effectively communicate and collaborate with those who do not share their disciplinary and/or professional perspectives. Toward this end, both entry-level and advanced research courses in the Honors College allow students to ask questions of their own design in all fields and disciplines. All along the way, they are challenged to communicate about these research projects with other students who do not share their disciplinary backgrounds. And in our more disciplinary offerings we like to offer faculty the opportunity to reach beyond their own disciplines. For example, we currently have a physicist teaching students of all disciplines scientific literacy by engaging them with questions about our shared technological future, and a computer scientist teaching students of all disciplines about the art of video game design. And we currently have a multi-disciplinary team of faculty working together to design curriculum that allows students to pursue deeper and further multi-disciplinary learning as a component of civic engagement. We are interested in exploring opportunities for multidisciplinary teaching that we have not yet imagined.

    We invite faculty interested in exploring multidisciplinary teaching to reach out to us.

    Regularly teaching across disciplines is exciting. But it is also quite humbling. As faculty we come to the classroom with disciplinary expertise, so teaching students who are not in the classroom to learn what we know about our subjects regularly puts the instructor in the role of learner. I find particular encouragement as we strive to meet this challenge in the sentence at the end of the provost’s blog “If we aspire to prepare our students broadly, we must demand of ourselves the same.”

  • Interesting questions. How do we teach STEM students that their discipline-driven decisions may be based on inadequate understanding of other factors – social, behavioral, aesthetic, etc.? Or help non-STEM students to realize that technology advances affect their work in ways they may not consider.

    Maybe as a start, we could do a better job of explaining the rationale behind the Mason core so students understand what we really expect them to learn from those courses?

  • One way that we share knowledge on campus is through seminars, where visiting researchers and our own scholars share their own research. Seminars sometimes touch on topics that are not siloed into single disciplines and bring together different perspectives. Yet publicizing these seminars outside disciplinary boundaries is hard. For example, I run a seminar on Humanity-Centered Design, which might find broad application to those interested in the implications of technology across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Yet attendees are almost exclusively from two departments within the School of Engineering. How can we better publicize interdisciplinary seminars? Mason already has a lot of interesting things happening at the intersection of STEM and the liberal arts, but there’s more work to be done to better connect the people doing it.

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