Ask Margit: Overcoming barriers and bottlenecks in focus-based education

Contributing Writer

Discussions about education for both high school and college students seem to focus overwhelmingly on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. This arose because of the lack of achievement in these areas by U.S. students compared with those in other nations, according to a Congressional Research Services Report prepared by the Federation of American Scientists. The report goes on to say “among the 40 countries participating in the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. ranked 28th in math literacy and 24th in science literacy.”

In 2007, in response to how much STEM education would be needed in the future, the U.S. Congress passed the America COMPETES Act: America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science. New and expanded programs were funded and developed to narrow the gap cited in the 2003 report.

What does that mean for students who choose to study soft sciences, those that interpret human behavior, like psychology, sociology, anthropology, or political science, instead of the ‘hard’ or physical sciences – chemistry, biology, physics, or astronomy – referred to by the ‘S’ in STEM? And for those who want to study subjects grouped under ‘liberal arts’ or business headings? Are their college degrees now demoted to being irrelevant or unimportant? 

“Not at all,” says Scott E. Casper, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CAHSS) at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). “The two areas of education are inseparable. The skills and knowledge gained through classes in arts and humanities transcends the choice of major.

“Strong liberal arts education is at the core of UMBC, emphasized and valued across all disciplines and embodied in the almost two years of general education requirements. No matter what students major in, they still need to communicate well, write well, and think creatively about the challenges they’ll face in the future.” 

UMBC has also changed some of its instructional practices, making the education students receive more like what they’ll face in their work life environments. “For the rest of their lives, they will not be in large halls listening to someone lecture,” Casper notes. “We’re more mindful now of how our students learn and how well they learn.”

The school looked into the barriers and bottlenecks to learning, concluding that different forms of teaching – as opposed to lecturing – would better equip students for post-school business life, whether they work in STEM or any other type of company. This resulted in greater emphasis on seminar-type classes with more discussions and team-based activities.

Revising how students are taught also provides more practical skills. When they learn to write better, it is within their major, so it reflects future job requirements. The same is true of making presentations; doing them in a classroom setting provides them with public speaking experience.  

This shift in how students are educated is supported by a recent study from Michigan State University (MSU) and published by the National Science Foundation (NSF). “Active and collaborative instruction coupled with various means to encourage student engagement invariably lead to better student learning outcomes irrespective of academic discipline.” 

In addition to changing how students are taught, another MSU study found that STEM students who study the arts as children have more patentable inventions and founded more new companies. These former students also “believe that their innovative ability is stimulated by their arts and crafts knowledge” and “lifelong participation and exposure in the arts and crafts yields the most significant impacts for innovators and entrepreneurs.”  

This raises the question of whether or not we have gone too far toward STEM and ignored the benefits of including music and art for elementary through high school students and liberal arts education at the college level. 

Christine Spencer, Interim Dean of the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Baltimore, points out that Steve Jobs took products away from techies to make them more human-friendly. “Technical skills have an expiration date because the technology changes so rapidly. By the time students leave college, it’s already morphed into another generation. But being able to write and think critically lasts forever.”

How do those who study liberal arts and humanities fare in the job market compared with STEM students? Right after graduation, those with STEM degrees earn higher starting salaries. Long term, though, they tend to balance out. In a 2014 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), employers want to hire balanced employees, ones who have knowledge in both liberal arts and STEM. Moreover, “Ninety-three percent of employers agree that candidates’ demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major,” the study noted.

We often forget that some of our most important professions are not STEM-related. These include teachers at all levels; clergy; lawyers, judges and magistrates; accountants; sales and marketing professionals; and managers – from CEOs to supervisors. 

This past November marked the 100th anniversary of when Albert Einstein presented his Theory of Relativity. He arrived at the theory by daydreaming, doing what he called ‘thought experiments.’ He would imagine and visualize riding alongside a light beam and observing how it reacted to movement. Can you imagine a class dedicated to daydreaming? Maybe it’s time to embrace education as a whole and value it no matter what the subject matter. •

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Blurred boundaries

Old boundaries are artificial. The boundary placed between art and science – STEM and humanities – doesn’t describe the world we live in. 

– Scott E. Casper, dean, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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