Interdisciplinary STEM: STEAM Education & the Liberal Arts

While I proclaimed that STEM education was the focus of my blog posting here, I’d like to shift my focus today a little. A topic that has come to my attention is the debate over STEM vs. STEAM education as well as the debate over whether STEM education should be integrated into more of a liberal arts curriculum.

I found an article in the Washington Post by chemistry professor Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes on the subject.

The Dr. Jackson-Hayes advocated the integration of a more liberal arts approach with science and math. By this the author means that students receive one on one mentoring with a professor in which they are able to learn how to design experiments and generally think for themselves. This is an important aspect of liberal arts education that can be applied to the sciences and technical fields.

Furthermore, she argues that society has drawn an artificial line between sciences and the arts. She argues that figures like Leonardo Da Vinci as well as Steve Jobs illustrate that an interdisciplinary approach, the kind that a liberal arts education enhances.

She also says that a key aspect of liberal arts education that is lacking right now in science and engineering is the ability to communicate with people in non-technical fields as well as the belief that it would be beneficial to take classes outside of one’s major that could be later incorporated into one’s work.

In addition to the liberal-arts argument, there is the argument that arts should be incorporated into STEM curriculums. STEAM education for those who don’t know is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. So basically it is the inclusion of arts into the STEM curriculum. This approach values the arts as an essential way to approach problems creatively. Specifically, when it comes to problem solving, STEAM proponents believe artistic principles extend naturally to the design of products. The communication arts could help with increased communication, which is a skill essential to team projects. Increased right brain activity could also make it easier for kids to plan how they’ll go about finding a solution to whatever problem they’re faced with. In all of these cases, art is taught as an APPLIED subject though, much like in the case of math and science.

However, on the flip side of things, some proponents of STEM believe that STEAM education is an unnecessary extra step. They believe that art and creativity occur naturally through STEM education, and that an extra emphasis on the arts would only water down STEM education. From arts proponents, there is the thought that it would be the arts that would be watered down in STEAM education, because it would be taught as more of a tool to solve problems.

My Two Cents

Now that I’ve given the low-down on what opinions are floating around out there, I’ll talk a little about my experience with interdisciplinary education. Last semester I was plunged into the honors section of Engineering Design 100 where I had to significantly broader my gaze. When I say broaden my gaze, what I mean is that the class included aspects of many different fields. For one project we were required to cook a four-course meal in our dorms. One day we learned from a professor in the department of arts and architecture how to sketch. We did a reading assignment on Plato’s “The Cave.” To top it off, we did design icon presentations, which included a wide variety of artists, engineers, architects and scientists.

This one class in a way epitomized both the liberal arts approach to STEM as well as STEAM education. I’ve come to believe that this incorporation of the arts and a learn by doing approach is essential for STEM education. Engineering is as much an art as it is a science, as the problem solving required of engineers, in turn requires creativity.

In a real-world example, I would like to cite a book recommended to me by my father (the software engineer). The book is titled The Timeless Way of Building and is written by Christopher Alexander. While The Timeless Way is a book on architecture, it is of great importance to software engineers, because of something Alexander describes as the “Quality Without a Name.” He writes:

“To seek the timeless way we must first know the quality without a name. There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.”

Alexander goes on to describe a sort of pattern language throughout the book, but this architectural concept if often used in software engineering to describe the process of software design.

Is art/a liberal arts perspective important in STEM education? Let me know below and if you think it is important, tell me how you’d like to see either approach implemented.


3 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary STEM: STEAM Education & the Liberal Arts

  1. Brenna Fisher

    I definitely agree that interdisciplinary education is the best way to go. There is no reason the difference between Liberal Arts and STEM has to be so black and white. One of the best educations a person can receive is when they see how many different topics connect within their education. However, I will say that some people (like me) choose liberal arts topics because that is where their strengths lie. This is true with STEM majors as well. If we choose to integrate the subjects more, we need to remember that the curriculum should still fit with a person’s interests.

  2. Corey Capooci

    I believe that incorporating liberal arts into the STEM curriculum is definitely important. Especially if instills values into the student, because no matter how much math, science, and technology education you receive I would find it very difficult to replace the individuality found within a person who has a balance of engineering and liberal arts. Even though being extremely smart and well-studied in the STEM area is important for those looking to attain a career with such a focus, employers sometimes tend to look for more versatile candidates. Even outside of work and career, these arts and liberal arts fields allow some science and technology majors to find another passion to go along with their STEM background which then could create new products and innovations that take more than just a STEM focus.

  3. jow5365

    I would probably take the side that the creativity comes through itself in the STEM majors. Most STEM majors would not be big fans of the arts (myself included), and I’m not sure that it is necessary, though it is an interesting debate. I agree with you on the point though that engineers need to develop the skills of communicating with non-engineers. It is entirely possible for people of any field to water down their work to get the point across, though sometimes the engineering ego gets in the way of that.

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