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Why Colleges Are Giving STEM Students a Dose of Humanities

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Why Colleges Are Turning STEM into STEAM

“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” – Steve Jobs

The kind of thinking that brought us the Mac, the iPod and the iPhone is the kind of thinking that more and more schools are trying to cultivate.

From tiny Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., to major research universities like Duke University in Durham, N.C., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., undergraduate programs are looking for inventive ways to blur the distinction between the humanities and STEM programs.

“Our students are changing. It’s now normal for a student to say it’s not good enough to have just one way of looking at the world,” said Leonard White, associate professor in community and family medicine at the Duke Institute for Brain Science

“I have students who want to get ready for medical school, but increasingly they are just as interested in the social sciences, anthropology or performance art. The students are not like my cohort 35 years where we were interested in only one thing.”

New connections at Duke

At Duke, a $50 million gift from Anne and Robert Bass is funding the Bass Connections program, which promotes multidisciplinary partnerships. One outgrowth of Bass Connections is the development of new courses.

“Interdisciplinary teams of faculty members are coming together to co-teach courses, not tag-team teach,” said White. “In ‘Music and the Brain,’ a neuroscientist with expertise on sound perception teaches with a member of the music faculty. In ‘Gender Issues and Neuroscience,’ a neuroscientist studying how hormones affect the brain is teamed with someone from the women’s studies program.

“It’s a way to reimagine and reconfigure the undergraduate experience. We’re taking a close look at how can we approach areas of common interest without leaving our own disciplines behind.

“There are countless examples where scientists and other thinkers can find common ground, then bring their specific methods and tools to bear on a problem.”

Harvey Mudd has a much smaller enrollment than Duke – about 800 students. Although the school focuses on math, engineering and physical and biological sciences, it’s finding ways to offer the same kind of academic blends that Duke is offering.

Academic blends at Harvey Mudd

“Harvey Mudd, even from its foundation, had an emphasis on the humanities,” said Thomas Donnelly, professor of physics and core curriculum director. “Our students have a predisposition to wanting to take courses outside of the STEM disciplines. We tell prospective applicants, if you’re not interested in the impact of your work on society, then Harvey Mudd is not the place for you.”

A Mellon Foundation grant is helping to fund initiatives at the boundaries of STEM and humanities, including new courses, Donnelly said.

For example, last year a photographer and a mathematician teamed up for a course examining wave patterns in art. An engineering professor at Harvey Mudd and an arts professor from a nearby school are teaching a course that’s partly about art and partly about material sciences.

New courses this year include one about human-robot interactions, taught by a computer-science professor. The class touches on robotics, artificial intelligence, psychology, anthropology and drama.

“They start out by asking why a smart phone is so effective,” said Donnelly. “Games don’t come with manuals any more. They’re intuitive. That comes from multidisciplinary thinking.”

That approach “leavens the scientific disciplines,” said Donnelly. “If you can have a rational discussion where there’s not a precise answer, it’s a grayer world to live in. It’s good to see a world where things aren’t always black and white, as they’re often portrayed in the sciences.”

When the Times Higher Education 2015 World University Rankings named the top universities worldwide for arts and humanities education, not many people were surprised to see Stanford and Harvard in the top two spots. But the school in third place – MIT – might have seemed like an outlier.

MIT: Humanities are still important

Deborah Fitzgerald, professor of the history of technology and the former dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, wrote in The Boston Globe that the school sees the humanities as being of equal importance to STEM subjects.

“Some may be surprised, and, I hope, reassured, to learn that we view the humanities, arts and social sciences as essential, both for educating great engineers and scientists and for sustaining our capacity for innovation,” she said.

She said that humanities classes help MIT students “gain historical and cultural perspectives and critical thinking skills that help them collaborate with people across the globe, as well as communication skills that enable them to listen, explain and inspire.”

That’s the kind of viewpoint that would make Steve Jobs’ heart sing.

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