Oh, the humanit(ies)! Why integrating the liberal arts and STEM is a win-win for students, institutions

"Our students don't want to come here to be pigeonholed into narrow-band categories," said Richard Utz, senior associate dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech University. "They want to identify and then solve some of these complex problems we are facing, and those problems cannot be solved by any one of these specialized disciplines on their own."

Bolstered by state and national workforce needs and their promising return on investment, the STEM track represents a gold mine for colleges and universities that want to ensure credentials from their institution are providing students with good job prospects and gainful employment. Meanwhile, the humanities and social sciences are taking a back seat.

But something exciting is happening in the world of higher education. Colleges and universities hailing from both sides of the fence are inching ever closer to the middle, integrating lessons in the humanities with STEM-based curriculum—and vice versa.

Integrating the arts into STEM (“STEAM”) has been in discussion since at least 2010, when the Rhode Island School of Design helped pioneer it. The program may be gaining more traction now as a means to adapt curricula in the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) as its enrollment continues to wane and students’ pragmatism leads them to choose programs with a lower debt burden and higher payoff, The Washington Post reports.

“We mustn’t kill liberal education in order to save it, but we must also recognize that it is under genuine threat and that if it fails to adapt, it will only become even more marginal and peripheral,” wrote Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Academic (re)program

Last year, Georgia Tech University’s liberal arts college organized a symposium on interdisciplinary learning in the 21st century, inviting academics from across the institution. Led by Richard Utz, senior associate dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, leaders discussed the importance of removing the traditional barriers present at most universities that silo STEM fields from the invaluable lessons found in literature and the arts.

“Our students don’t want to come here to be pigeonholed into narrow-band categories,” said Utz. “They want to identify and then solve some of these complex problems we are facing, and those problems cannot be solved by any one of these specialized disciplines on their own.”

Conversely, small liberal arts colleges are beginning to expand their horizons, privy to an emerging economy and the new workforce it will demand. Middlebury College in Vermont has introduced the midd.data initiative, which embeds lessons in data science and other digital methods into college curricula regardless of students’ majors. Furthermore, DePauw University just received a historic $200 million donation to support its strategic plan. With one of its main pillars being academic renewal, DePauw renamed its liberal arts college to the College of Liberal Arts and Science.

“It’s important, particularly as we recruit students of the 21st century and their parents, for us to be very clear that, at DePauw, education will lead them both to be successful in the jobs of today and the jobs that we can’t even imagine for tomorrow,” said DePauw President Lori White in a one-on-one interview with University Business.

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How integrating the humanities creates better-prepared graduates

As excited as President White was to speak about the university’s new orientation, she also stressed the importance of students learning the necessary soft skills to approach an uncertain future. Soft skills in critical thinking, communication, resilience and others are increasingly vital assets for employers.

“Students are striving to master the hard skills necessary to compete in the 21st-century workforce to secure gainful employment in their field of study. Too many are unaware of what soft skills are, how much employers value them, and what they can do to master them,” said Charlie Wonderlic, CEO of Wonderlic, a company focused on connecting employers to top talent, in a study that found 93% of employers now prefer to see soft skills on students’ résumés.

Lessons in the humanities and social sciences may be just the edge STEM students need to master these soft skills. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found increased soft skills competencies in students whose medical education was integrated with the humanities and arts.

Employer buy-in on the humanities is so high that executives from Boeing, the multinational aircraft industry, partnered with Virginia Tech University in December 2023 to stress the importance of blending the humanities with technology. Administered by the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, aerospace engineering students learned lessons in collaboration, communication and innovative thinking.

“This is designed to be an eye-opening experience and a reality check for students,” said Shahabedin Sagheb, a senior systems engineer with Boeing and a former assistant collegiate professor in the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program. “We are emphasizing that even if the technology is good, success hinges on capturing human interest and fostering widespread human adoption.”

The upside for institutions

Not only do students win from cultivating skills in humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS)—but institutions do as well. The report from the National Academies also mentioned how STEM-HASS integration bolstered the recruitment, learning and retention of women and individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in science and engineering. These are demographics that have long-sustained barriers to accessing STEM.

With better representation come better life outcomes.

“We will get measurable outcomes by seeing medical innovations and interventions that address and prevent health problems for populations whose health has been undervalued,” said Julia Kubanek, a chemistry professor at Georgia Tech and vice president for interdisciplinary research, at last year’s symposium. “We’ll get peace engineering and technological innovations that protect health and safety, especially in marginalized communities.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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