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Why STEM needs liberal arts

Can liberal arts and STEM co-exist? The marketplace is demanding it.
University Business, August 2016

For a long time, the academy has faced questions about whether or not liberal arts and STEM could co-exist. The talking points haven’t changed much – liberal arts colleges help students learn how to think and learn, while STEM institutions provide the highly technical education required. But today’s colleges and universities are tasked with delivering students to the marketplace who are both thinkers and tinkerers.

STEM needs liberal arts as much as liberal arts need STEM. A reason for this is because the marketplace is demanding it. Many of our corporate partners are asking for graduates who can work in teams, have good communication, critical thinking and problem solving skills and can work in a collaborative environment. What we have encountered is that graduates from traditional engineering programs, for example, have a lockstep curriculum – they are great mechanical or chemical engineers – but rarely are these engineers trained to think about different perspectives or look at the big picture. STEM graduates are problem solvers. But if colleges and universities are only providing technical training, we’ve missed a real opportunity to help solve problems holistically.

Recently on our campus, we opened the STEAM Innovation Center. And while this has been two years or so in the making, for industry partners it couldn’t come soon enough. The STEAM Center is about helping students and business leaders approach problem solving from a number of different lenses. Collaborators will use innovative technology to improve products and processes, the very definition of advanced manufacturing. Not only will faculty, staff and our students be involved in improving products, but partnerships with local businesses will help enhance our offerings. The mission of the Center is to provide companies access to students and faculty interested in rapid prototyping, sustainable processes development and robotics. Projects tackled within the Center will answer questions about product design, appeal for the end user, and product packaging.

The business world is craving this kind of collaboration. Even before our announcement, corporate partners from large companies like Honda and Nestle have approached us about internships and recruitment opportunities for our students. Recently an Ohio state report card on career tech programs in Columbus earned a D because students’ passage rate was just 54 percent on technical assessments. We as college educators must ensure that graduates have the technical skills they need, but we also need to ensure they have appropriate 21st century skills.

We used to refer to “soft skills” as characteristics that a liberal arts education provides. But the term “soft skills” is outdated. These skills have become “essential skills.” In order for STEM graduates to ascend in their careers – from the bench to the boardroom – individuals must have a combination of a strong technical education rooted in communication, business and critical thinking skills.

STEM curriculum combined with liberal arts orientation can be complementary and powerful. Colleges and universities that silo their institutions as exclusively STEM schools or liberal arts colleges are doing a disservice to students and the marketplace. We have to be able to educate students holistically and that means providing them with a full range of skills to be successful.

Kathy A. Krendl is president of Otterbein University in Westerville, OH.

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