Synthesizing Science and the Liberal Arts

How might institutions that focus on science and engineering provide a more blended education that provides opportunities for students to study and apply what they have learned outside the sciences?

December 13, 2012

Too often our students imagine that they have to make a choice between studying for a profession in order to get a job or studying the liberal arts in preparation for life.  They often feel that their interest in studying science and engineering will be challenging and productive, but that they will have to sacrifice their interest in the arts, humanities and social sciences.  How might institutions that focus on science and engineering provide a more blended education that provides opportunities for students to study and apply what they have learned outside the sciences?

In the entry entitled “Classroom to Career,”  Mash Up highlighted an initiative at Fairfield University that utilizes a web site and the advising system to introduce students to opportunities that link their liberal arts studies to career options.  This example is not meant to suggest that the burden rests solely with liberal arts institutions to prove their relevance in today’s hyper-competitive higher education environment.  It is equally important that institutions specializing in professional training examine their approaches to ensure that the education they provide goes beyond job training.  If their education is too narrowly focused, students at these schools will be unable to adapt to the ever changing workplace and will not be prepared to be lifelong learners and well-rounded citizens.

Just as institutions are modifying their liberal arts curricula, those that focus on professional education must and are examining theirs.  A comment to Mash Up from a loyal alumnus from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Mass. brought my attention to how WPI has been examining their approach to science and technology education for over forty years, since the introduction of the WPI Plan in 1970.

The WPI Catalog describes how the WPI Plan in 1970 “replaced the traditional rigidly-prescribed curriculum – typical of conventional engineering education – with a flexible, exciting, and academically challenging program aimed at helping students to learn how to learn.”  President Dennis Berkey of WPI told me that while the Plan has been modified over the years, the original intent remains:  “While preparing for careers in science and engineering, our kids are passionate about the humanities and the arts.  They bring the beauty of the humanities and the power of thinking that comes along with these fields.  This is a powerful synthesis that prepares students for careers as well as for life.”

The structure of the WPI Plan today involves a project in each of the four undergraduate years:

  • Great Problems Seminars (first year):  Prepares first year students for our unique project-enriched curriculum and serves as an introduction to university-level research.  Problem solving comes out of the textbook and into the real world by focusing students on themes of global importance, as they tackle some of the world's most pressing concerns.
  • Humanities & Arts Project (sophomore year): Encourages students to find their inner artist, musician, philosopher… on campus or at locations abroad.
  • Interactive Qualifying Project (junior year): Brings together students from various disciplines who work in teams, either on campus or at our project centers located around the globe. Using science, technology, and engineering, our students solve problems that matter to real people and real communities.
  • Major Qualifying Project (senior year): Provides students nearing graduation the opportunity to gain real-world design or research experience within their major field—developing skills along the way that employers and graduate schools require.

President Berkey explained that the key throughout the WPI experience is collaborative learning.  Students work together to apply what they have learned in the classroom in practical settings ranging from local businesses to community service opportunities to work at international project centers.  He describes how the WPI Plan promotes “a way of thinking that says knowledge is important to the extent that it can be applied for the productive ends of society.” 

In March 2011, The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices released a report entitled Degrees for What Jobs? Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy.  The report states that “a growing number of governors and state policymakers have come to recognize that higher education, including community colleges, four-year colleges, and research universities, cannot help drive economic growth in their states unless students’ academic success is linked to the needs of the marketplace.”

Carol Geary Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, criticizes the NGA report as “a narrow call to give priority to degree programs that are tied directly to labor-market needs and business investment.” She makes the case that “what new employees too often lack, business leaders complain, are the skills and abilities that enable them to continue to learn on the job” and that “innovation requires employees to engage in continuous learning across new fields of endeavor.”

Schneider’s point is right whether approaching education from a liberal arts perspective, a professional training perspective, or somewhere in the middle.  While we cannot ignore the economic realities facing our students, we cannot give sole priority to preparing our students for today’s market. The WPI Plan is an example from an institution whose mission is to train scientists and engineers with a synthesis of science and liberal arts so that they are prepared today for the workplace and ready to innovate and to engage in society today and for the rest of their lives.

William H. Weitzer is currently a Senior Fellow at the Spencer Foundation.  After completing his Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology, he has served for thirty years in administrative positions at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Wesleyan University, and Fairfield University.


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