STEM in the Context of the Liberal Arts

Anatomy students use models to understand the human body.

Anatomy students use models to understand the human body.

The leading conversation in educational circles these days is about STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Though the public policy discourse is mostly about jobs and the economy, educators approach this with a more nuanced perspective. We often hear that future jobs are in STEM fields. Analysts suggest STEM industries will drive our economy. There are likely some elements of truth in these statements, but should we simply train a legion of technicians?

I have the privilege of serving on the Executive Committee for the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. It’s a fascinating experience to be in conversation with business leaders, educators at all levels and government officials on promoting academic programs, curricular innovations and educational activities in support of STEM.

The STEM Council’s definition of STEM is: “an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work and the global enterprise, enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it, the ability to compete in the new economy.”

There are three elements of this definition that have become most important for me. First, the definition begins with the word “interdisciplinary.” An enlightened understanding of STEM acknowledges the creativity and innovation we seek to foster in students cannot be achieved without a broad, liberal education. STEM education cannot be experienced in isolation from the humanities, arts, social sciences and professional fields of study. Everything has context, and if we expect our graduates to address global and societal challenges, then they need to understand humanity in the light of deeply held values, aesthetics and social and historical settings.

Second, the definition refers to the “connections” across the major sectors of society. Here again we task ourselves with avoiding isolation. The more perspectives we embrace, the better we will become at integrating and aligning interests. For many years, our Central College faculty have organized the curriculum around the concept of “Intersections.” From beginning to end, we seek to draw students into a complex set of interactions that will enable them to see how interdependent we really are in the global context.

Third, our definition aims at the goal of “STEM literacy.” The council realizes that not everyone can or should pursue a career in a narrowly defined STEM pathway. It’s not only unrealistic, it would be incredibly unhealthy. That said, the argument for broadly defined STEM literacy is compelling. As a society, we will face many choices in the years to come in order to balance interests — economic, environmental and ethical. Everyone should be part of that conversation, even as some focus their efforts on specific applications.

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