Chronicle of Higher Education Covers NASEM’s Arts Integration Report


June 25, 2018

“While the report encourages colleges to take up integration, it does not offer a single definition of the term or a prescription for how they should go about that.”

a2ru helps empower leaders to integrate the arts.

Here’s the article:

How Colleges Can Help STEM Students Think More Broadly
By Beckie Supiano MAY 09, 2018

The STEM disciplines are higher education’s golden child. Even as politicians and the public express skepticism about college in general and fields like French literature and art history in particular, they are bullish on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM is seen as practical, necessary — as a key way to advance national interests and for students to land a well-paying job. The STEM brand is so ascendant that disciplines like economics are arguing their way into the category.

Gretchen Ertl
Students at Harvard Medical School perform in a concert as part of a program that uses the arts to help medical students be more empathetic.
In that context, a report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine this week is rather striking: It argues that colleges should integrate the study of STEMM (the second M is for medicine) with the arts and humanities.
The report, “The Integration of the Humanities and Arts With Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches From the Same Tree,” was written by a committee including representatives of industry as well as academe. Both groups, the report says, agree that graduates will need a broad set of skills that transcend any individual discipline. Cultivating those skills, it says, “requires exposure to multiple fields, practice to build employability skills, and experience with communication and collaboration.” It argues that, while further research is needed, there’s enough evidence that integrating STEM with the arts and humanities is beneficial that colleges ought to explore, and study, ways to do so.

It’s certainly understandable that students and families are preoccupied with landing a job post-graduation, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and chair of the committee. And the committee is certainly not suggesting that individual disciplines are unimportant, added Skorton, a past president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Its point instead is that a narrow education is insufficient in the modern world.

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While the report encourages colleges to take up integration, it does not offer a single definition of the term or a prescription for how they should go about that. Each college has its own context and student population, Skorton said. “The worst thing to do,” he said, “would be a cookie-cutter approach.”
The report does, however, provide examples of college efforts that have seen results by blending STEM and the arts or humanities at both the course and the program level. An example of integration at the course level, Skorton said, is an elective at Harvard Medical School in which students engage in observation activities at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to improve their diagnostic skills. An early and strong example of integration at the program level comes from the engineering school at Texas A&M University at College Station, Skorton said. The program, begun in the 1990s, integrated engineering students’ first-year course work in calculus, chemistry, engineering graphics, English, physics, and problem solving into an engineering, English, and science curriculum. Participating students, the report notes, had to be able to draw on material from one course to succeed in another. They saw a number of benefits, including stronger performance in calculus and physics.

Given the lack of a clear road map, how can colleges ensure that the integration they attempt is effective and meaningful, rather than just another box for students and administrators to check? The key, Skorton said, is for colleges to study a course or program’s effect on student-learning outcomes, and make adjustments as needed.

It’s Hard ‘to Do This Well’
Neal Koblitz, a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, has long wished that STEM students would broaden their horizons with challenging courses in other disciplines. “Often overlooked,” he wrote in a commentary piece for The Chronicle last year, “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.”

One might expect Koblitz to be thrilled with the National Academies’ recommendations, but, while he believes they are well-intentioned, he has some reservations. “I think there’s a real danger,” he said, “that people will underestimate how hard it is to do this well.”

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It may well be in STEM students’ long-term best interest to take a few rigorous humanities courses. But every short-term incentive, Koblitz argued, encourages them to approach nonscience disciplines in the least-taxing way possible. Students want to keep their grades up, he said, especially if they’re trying to secure their place in a competitive major or shore up a graduate-school application. Taking a challenging course outside of their wheelhouse risks dinging their GPA. Professors, meanwhile, have little reason to challenge nonmajors who would rather coast. It’s not a coincidence, Koblitz said, that science students take art appreciation, much the way humanities students take Rocks for Jocks. Such courses, he said, entertain more than they ground students in another way of investigating the world.
Kira Hamman, an assistant teaching professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania State University at Mont Alto who has also written about the importance of the humanities to STEM, agrees that colleges often allow students to experience other disciplines only glancingly. Students often see general-education requirements as little more than hoops to jump through, Hamman says, and “that’s our fault,” since colleges have done a poor job of explaining how students might benefit from meeting them.

But integration, Hamman said, doesn’t simply mean sampling a bunch of unrelated courses. It’s about helping students draw explicit connections between them. Penn State made this a focus of a recent curricular overhaul, she said. Students are now required to take courses that bring together multiple disciplines, or domains, or take linked courses that explore the same issue from different disciplinary perspectives. Hammon sees similar thinking at work in the National Academies’ report. Many STEM experts have been convinced of integration’s benefits for some time, she said. Perhaps the academies’ authority will help that message reach a broader audience.

Living in an Interdisciplinary World
Colleges have a number of tools at their disposal to help students draw such connections, said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. “One thing we need is more co-teaching,” he said — though campus policies and structures often make that a challenge. It’s easier for science majors to draw connections between science and art if they’re taking a course co-taught by a scientist and an artist than it would be for them in an art elective, Tepper said.

But say those science majors did take a traditional art elective. The professor could still help, Tepper said, by creating an assignment that required students to link the course to their major.

Some students find ways to draw on different disciplines all on their own by double majoring, a phenomenon Tepper has studied. Colleges rarely ask double majors to find connections between their disciplines, Tepper found. But the students still do.

Tepper and his co-author asked students a bunch of questions about how creative they were able to be in their majors. Science majors reported lower levels of doing creative work — like being able to choose the direction in which to take an assignment — than other majors. But those who double-majored in science and the arts or humanities, Tepper said, were more likely to report working creatively — even in their science courses. That suggests, he said, that students’ nonscience major changed their approach to their science coursework.

“In spite of pressures to be specialized and to focus their education on a linear career path,” Tepper said, “students themselves, in terms of disposition and cognition, are living in an interdisciplinary world.” Colleges, he said, “just need to enable that — and we don’t do it.”

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.