Integrating STEM with the Liberal Arts

23 May 2016

Susan SingerIn his 1945 presidential inauguration speech at Carleton, titled “Science and the Other Humanities,” Laurence McKinley Gould placed science firmly within a liberal arts context. Said Gould: “[The] true spirit of liberal or humane studies is not inherent in any special or sacred field.”

Today, more than ever, instruction in science and the liberal arts mutually reinforce each other. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—or STEM, as the disciplines are called collectively—pervade the national dialog. What’s missing in many conversations about education, work, and life is the broader integration of STEM, replete with the many ways of knowing and understanding our world.

The Japanese education ministry’s recent announcement of its intention to “better meet society’s needs” by reducing funding for the humanities and social sciences has renewed debate about valuing all the disciplines. Narrowly focusing on STEM will not result in a creative, nimble, and adaptive workforce that is capable of addressing global challenges relating to food supply, health, and energy. Such challenges demand innovative thinking, with solutions emerging at the interstices of the social sciences, humanities, arts and literature, and STEM.

Engineers stress T-shaped skills, focused on the shape of the letter. A T-shaped individual has deep understanding within a field complemented by a range of skills that allows her to work across domains, a process called “convergence.” How do we prepare our students for the new world of convergence? Beyond learning across a broad range of disciplines, a hallmark of a liberal arts education, mastering intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies from resilience and persistence to communication and teamwork is imperative.

The value of teamwork was beautifully illustrated recently in the discovery that gravitational waves were generated by colliding black holes 1.3 billion years ago. More than a thousand researchers, including Carleton physics professor Nelson Christensen and his students, worked for decades to detect the waves. Through their tenacity and teamwork, these students experienced liberal arts learning at its finest. Contemplating the enormity of this discovery reinforces Gould’s argument (also from his inaugural address): “The concept of the relationship of man and his institutions to the natural world . . . is the first claim science has to being a humane study.”

I’m mindful of Gould’s claim in an era of measurement, metrics, and ratings. Some people argue that closing the gap in performance on the U.S. math and science scores for 15-year-olds from high- and low-income families on the Programme for International Student Assessment could result in a 37.7 percent increase in GDP and a cumulative $86.5 trillion increase by 2075. STEM competency supports success in far more than STEM fields. At a time when high school graduation rates are up, but literacy and numeracy scores on the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies are down, we need to focus on the quality of education.

But STEM education can’t prepare an effective workforce if it exists in a vacuum. A close look at how Carleton emerges near the top of a Brookings Institution value-added assessment of four-year schools is instructive. About half the added value comes from unmeasured characteristics described as an “x factor.” Likely the secret sauce of Carleton’s success can be found in key elements of the Association of American Colleges and Universities employers survey, which underscores the importance of developing ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, ability to learn, complex problem solving in real-world settings, evidence-based analysis, critical thinking, and many other aspects of a 21st-century liberal arts education.

Whether one studies science, the humanities, or the arts, an education imbued with high-quality, liberal learning will lead to lifelong learning and deep, lasting understandings. That is the best possible preparation for work. Most importantly, it is a path to a life rich in purpose and meaning.

—Susan Singer, Laurence McKinley Gould Professor of the Natural Sciences

Shortly before this issue went to press, Susan Singer was named vice president for academic affairs and provost for Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.