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STEMM or Humanities? Answer: Both!

In a recent TED talk, Eric Berridge, the cofounder of a global company using innovations in technology and software to help businesses grow, suggests, “. . . . while the sciences teach us how to build things, it’s the humanities that teach us what to build and why to build them.” Berridge employs more humanities graduates than engineering or computer-science degree holders. A lot more. Less than ten percent of his employees come from a STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) background. In fact, his chief technology officer is an English major. Berridge believes we have been overvaluing STEMM and undervaluing the humanities for too long. He argues that in today’s complex and innovation-driven world, the skills needed to succeed go far beyond what is taught in vocational degree programs like computer science and engineering, which are often touted as the programs that give you the best bang for your buck.

A recently released report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) examines the STEMM versus humanities debate by looking at the benefits of integrative approaches in undergraduate and graduate education, in which STEMM fields are studied along with the arts and humanities, bridging knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines. As higher education has become increasingly specialized by discipline, emphasizing practical workforce skills over fostering an “enlightened and engaged citizenry,” academics and employers are questioning whether an education focused on imparting technical skills is enough to prepare students for the rapid and ongoing changes in the emergent socio-technical landscape. What good is knowing how to create technology if we don’t know the implications of living with it?

If we want to prepare students to solve large-scale human problems, we must push them to widen, not narrow, their education and interests. Of course, we need technical experts, but we also need people who grasp the whys and hows of human behavior.”Scott Hartley, venture capitalist and author of The Fuzzy and the Techie

The NASEM report recommends the use of integrative educational models in higher education rather than the more typical experience of obtaining a degree focused exclusively on one or the other of these disciplines. Evidence of positive learning outcomes associated with this integrative approach includes improved written and oral communication skills, content mastery, problem solving, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, and empathy, as well as the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. Surveys show that these skills are highly valued by employers. As Neal Koblitz, a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, wrote last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Often overlooked is that for STEM majors, as much as for other future professionals, a broad background in the humanities is likely to give them a tremendous advantage in their career.”

“With the enormous strides in technology, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and communications, graduates will need such transferable and uniquely human skills to be able to adaptively and continuously learn to work with, and alongside, new technologies.”NASEM report

While the NASEM study does not go as far as to draw causal links between integrative curricula and student learning and career outcomes, its authors assert that the evidence available is sufficient to recommend institutions of higher learning develop, implement, and support courses and programs integrating the arts and humanities with STEMM and to evaluate them going forward. Examples of integrative curricula with positive results that are cited in the study include a Harvard University course in which students engaged in observation activities at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to improve visual and communication skills related to physical diagnosis of patients and a course at Arizona State University in which the choreographer Liz Lerman paired artists with molecular virologists, evolutionary biologists, and engineers  to create performances that change the way we think about aging, perfection, ancestry, and evolution. As described in the medical journal JAMA, narrative medicine is an example of a field in which the integration of STEMM and the humanities can lead to more effective medical practices. Integrating the study of medicine with literary studies “can give physicians and surgeons the skills, methods, and texts to learn how to imbue the facts and objects of health and illness with their consequences and meanings for individual patients and physicians.”

The report concludes that, in order to prepare students for the “increasingly complicated problems of the 21st century,” innovative scholarship at the intersection of the humanities and STEMM in both undergraduate and graduate level education will be critical. Study committee chair David Skorton affirms, “Given that today’s challenges and opportunities are at once technical and human, responding to them calls for the full range of human knowledge and creativity.”

Photo by Gerd Altmann, via pixabay



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