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2014 November 24 - 01:35 am

The Humanities Touch

Value of Liberal Arts Examined at STEMtech Conference.


DENVER — Luther Riedel and Kevin Murphy fidgeted in front of a group of stern-faced STEM educators on a Monday morning, looking like a couple of earnest students who were looking for a poetry class but found an organic chemistry lab.

Riedel is an assistant professor of English at Anne Arundel Community College, and Murphy is an assistant professor of philosophy at the same Maryland institution.

They came to the Mile High City to take part in the seventh annual STEMtech Conference, put on by the League for Innovation in the Community College, and dedicated to increasing student access, success and completion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and exploring the role of technology in teaching and learning.

The conference was populated by about 900 chemistry professors, math instructors and computer science brainiacs, so the presence of a couple of educators steeped in the humanities and liberal arts stood out. Plato, say hello to Bill Gates.

But there was a method and a message to their madness. Riedel and Murphy were in Denver to assert that humanities have something to offer STEM instructors and students. Studying English, or philosophy, or the social sciences, or art, can boost those success rates that educators so covet, they believe. In the drive to produce more STEM grads, the humanities are being left behind, they said, and that’s a major mistake.

“There is kind of a national mania that wants to create STEM graduates out of thin air,” Riedel said during a conference session titled “It’s Only Logical: What the Humanities Offer STEM Programs.”

The common wisdom dictates that the answer to producing more STEM graduates is expanding the menu of STEM courses.

“This approach is becoming more and more pervasive, and we think it’s disastrous,” Riedel added.

All of the attributes today’s employers say they want in their employees — the ability to communicate effectively, to think critically, to work collaboratively — are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. Studying the liberal arts could help STEM graduates succeed.

To prove their point, Riedel and Murphy are embarking on an experiment. They’ll test whether STEM students at their college can benefit from studying logic, a foundational philosophy course. The study would compare the academic performance of STEM students who took a logic course with those who didn’t. They hope to present preliminary results at next year’s STEMtech conference.

“We would like to have an interdisciplinary study where we could bring logic and STEM together,” Murphy said. “Does having formal training in classical logic improve performance in STEM classes?” The answer to that query could contribute to the debate now raging across academe. Just what is the value of a liberal arts education in an economy that values technical skills? Amid a sour economy, the drive to produce more STEM graduates is considered a key solution to improving educational performance and solving the country’s workforce development woes.

But the trend toward technology has further Balkanized higher education, hardening the education silos that educators say must be brought down. More students are flocking to technical professions in the belief they offer more immediate and lucrative employment opportunities after graduation. Questions about the value of liberal arts studies have been raised anew, just like they have after every other economic downturn.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences, for one, believes those questions have already been answered. Last year, the academy made an impassioned defense of the liberal arts in a report titled “The Heart of the Matter.” The rise in technical education and a robust liberal arts curriculum need not be mutually exclusive, the report said.

“At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences — as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion — we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be — our sense of what makes America great,” the report said.

“The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities — including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts — foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over timeand in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences — including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology — examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.

“Scientific advances have been critical to the extraordinary achievements of the past century, and we must continue to invest in basic and applied research in the biological and physical sciences. But we also must invest more time, energy, and resources in research and education in the humanities and social sciences. We must recognize that all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment of the American public.”

Many community college STEM educators agree that the humanities and social sciences are key to a well-rounded education. Surveys show that employers want employees with technical skills, but they also value the capacity for critical thinking and continued learning imparted through a grounding in the liberal arts. Moreover, everyone needs the ability to communicate effectively in a range of situations. Engineers and scientists need to master more than the computer and the calculator. They also need to write and speak clearly.

STEM educators increasingly are recognizing that reality. At the STEMtech Conference, sessions were divided into nine tracks, one of which was “The Integration of STEM and the Liberal Arts.”

In an essay written for the Huffington Post, Vince Bertram, president and chief executive officer of Project Lead The Way, said the combination of art and science can be readily seen in everyday objects.

“The Corvette Stingray, the 2014 North American Car of the Year, is an engineering marvel and one of the top-performing automobiles on the market,” he wrote. “But it’s aesthetically appealing. The same could be said for your new light-weight running shoes, your single-serving coffee maker, or the acoustically designed facilities for your community’s symphony orchestra. These are all examples of engineering and the arts working together.”

One college where that is happening already is at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Pennsylvania, where two professors have used a National Science Foundation grant to merge computer science and digital art. Art and computer science students are placed in paired game development courses, working on projects that use art and programming tasks to simulate realworld work experiences.

Their work is part of the growing STEAM movement — Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics.

STEAM is an effort to show that art can bring science to life, sparking creativity among STEM students.

Mary Rasley, a professor of computer science at Lehigh Carbon Community College, and Steve Weitz, an assistant professor of media arts, used a STEMtech session to describe their collaboration.

“The gaming industry provided a wonderful opportunity to bring together computer scientists and digital artists,” Rasley said. “We wanted our students paired in a dynamic industry that would require them to work together constantly,” Rasley said. “This would be the perfect place for STEAM.”

The paired program over the past three years has produced a 76 percent retention rate, better than the college’s average of 60 percent. Exposing students to both fields was critical to retention, Rasley said.

“We believe the retention rate came about because the students didn’t see just one pathway,” she said. “Here they get the opportunity to explore other options.”

“Team-building has been really integral to this…you need to be able to share knowledge back and forth and find ways to put the needs of the project first and the individual’s needs second.”

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