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Solving Today’s Most Pressing Problems through Integration of Humanities and STEMM

“Students are not trained to manage ambiguity and apply critical thinking skills to understand the multi-dimensional issues of modern society. Employers are concerned that graduating students are ill-equipped to engage with and solve real-world problems.” – University Affairs

A recent article in University Affairs magazine addresses a growing recognition among scholars and thought leaders that the fragmentation of curriculum along disciplinary lines at today’s institutions of higher education might not be effectively preparing graduates for postacademic life. Although the value of having expertise in a specific subject or area of study is not disputed, there is increasing consensus that education based on separate, nonintegrated academic disciplines, sometimes known as disciplinary silos, is not keeping up with the demands of a rapidly changing world and solving its large-scale problems. In fact, surveys consistently show that employers want graduates who are more than experts in a particular field or technology. Companies like Google say the most important skills for career success are critical thinking, communication, teamwork, ethical reasoning, understanding human psychology, and creativity—skills cultivated in many humanities programs. Moreover, technical subject-matter skills ranked last in importance. Acknowledging the accelerating complexity of the world’s problems, many companies are trying to break down what they see as ineffectual “silo thinking” within their own organizations and are looking for employees educated and trained across disciplines.

A recent study conducted collaboratively by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) sought to gain a better understanding of the great potential of interdisciplinary education and how it can most “effectively prepare students for work, life, and citizenship in the 21st century.” Despite a dearth of formal, longitudinal studies and causal evidence to date, the study found that many approaches to integrating the humanities and arts with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) are associated with positive learning outcomes,  including “written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking and deeper learning, content mastery, general engagement and enjoyment of learning, empathy, resilience, the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, and indicators of improved science literacy.” The research committee was struck by the fact that “many of these learning outcomes are those that higher education institutions and employers agree will prepare students to enter the workforce, help them live enriched lives, and enable them to become active and informed members of a modern democracy.” Included in the NASEM report is a compendium of integrative courses and programs being taught at colleges and universities around the country. The list illustrates diverse approaches and applications to multidisciplinary teaching and its far-reaching potential benefits.

Beyond the classroom, examples abound of the value of cross-disciplinary education in real-world problem solving. In an article in The Conversation, the authors describe local and global challenges, from decreasing vehicular accidents and deaths at a problematic intersection to combating climate change, that have been addressed by combining humanistic, holistic thinking with science and engineering.  As the authors argue, “The most innovative solutions to problems like this demand deep integration of quantitative and emotional insights that are too often segregated between traditional academic disciplines.”

Rebecca Costa, author of The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way out of Extinction, argues that there is an urgent need for cultivating creative and divergent thinking in facing today’s most pressing problems. In order for human beings not to be outpaced by seemingly unstoppable threats like climate change, we need to rethink the type of education we offer today’s students. Incorporating critical and creative thinking, teamwork, communication, psychology, and ethical reasoning, all aspects of humanities education, with the study of science, engineering, and math will best prepare students of today to be the success stories of tomorrow. Perhaps this quotation from the University of Arizona’s AU News sums it up best: “Silos are out. Integration is in. And the humanities are here to stay.”


Photo by Goodluz via Dreamstime

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