STEM + Liberal Arts: The Best Way Forward

In my last post, I made the case for the long-term value of a liberal arts education as the best tool to prepare students for an uncertain world of work.

In an ideal world – or at least my ideal world – all students would receive an undergraduate education steeped in the humanities, social sciences, and language learning, while also studying the core sciences. Students pursuing careers in business, engineering, medicine, architecture, and other professional fields would then progress to graduate study or certification in their chosen areas.

The reality is not so rosy. Around the world, STEM education has benefited from an increase in funding and attention. However, an unchecked focus on STEM growth can lead to the narrowing of educational outcomes, especially those linked to critical thinking, communication skills, and the learning habits associated with a flexible workforce. Several countries in the MENA region have invested in and promoted STEM education so enthusiastically that nearly 70 percent of their students now study technical fields.

Let me be clear: a focus on scientific and technical fields does not necessarily yield a poor education. Numerous institutions of higher education provide world-class education in these fields, including my own. But a student who receives instruction purely in science, math, and technology receives, at best, an incomplete education.

Many colleges and universities attempt to round out their scientific and technical degree programs by establishing core areas of study to expand the breadth of students’ academic experience. While an admirable first step, these programs frequently do not demand enough liberal arts coursework to significantly impact a student’s education. Furthermore, core requirements outside a student’s field of study are seldom valued as important experiences, but rather as inconsequential errands, diverting focus from the path to “real” STEM learning.

In many of these cases, especially in areas where higher education reforms have been slow to materialize, lecture format is the only means of instruction and student memorization is the primary learning objective. You can look forward to more of my thoughts on teacher and faculty development in future posts, but it’s clear that critical thinking and other invaluable learning outcomes suffer when both the scope and quality of education are limited.

My solution to this problem is what I would call STEM + Liberal Arts, an education that unites the foundations of STEM learning with a curriculum in the humanities, social sciences, and languages. There is a belief, which is only partially accurate, that studying a STEM discipline provides the surest path to post-graduation employment. Yes, jobs in technical fields are available, but Fortune 500 CEOs and other leaders in the marketplace have expressed a preference for workers who have studied the liberal arts. They know from experience that a liberal education is the foundation for building a solid business enterprise. Why? Because it is by studying the liberal arts that students learn innovation, creativity, planning, and critical thinking. STEM Plus, then, takes the best of a liberal education, where the foundations of learning and knowledge emerged, and unites this with a technical education.

Continuing to develop our competencies in science and technology is crucial, but knowledge from these fields can only respond to a limited portion of the challenges that the world faces in the years to come. Regardless of scientific advancements, the major social and economic conflicts of our time are rooted in a lack of understanding of the human condition. STEM disciplines, without the intellectual framework provided by a liberal education, cannot tackle the problems of social and religious conflict, cultural misunderstandings, the misuse of political power, and the deepening divide between the developing and developed regions of the world. While science and technology provide tools that begin to address these problems, those tools cannot teach deep cultural tolerance, understanding, or communication. The need to understand human behavior and the human spirit is at the heart of each of the thorniest issues we face as global citizens, and a liberal education is the best option we have for moving towards such understanding.

A model like STEM Plus provides an alternative path forward. Of course, it is not a new approach to educating our students; traditional arts and science degrees provide similar outcomes. However, today’s science and technology disciplines erode traditional degrees, whether by design (constructing programs upon the premise that more STEM is better) or by default (following standards set by accrediting agencies in technical disciplines, which have squeezed out any semblance of the liberal arts). STEM + Liberal Arts seeks to address these structural issues and prepare our students for the twenty-first century and beyond.

Richard R. Flores, Ph.D.
Senior Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Executive Director, UT Global Initiative for Education and Leadership

Liberal Education: A Response to Change

As I remarked in my last post, change is in the air when it comes to trends in higher education. New technologies, market-minded leaders with corporate worldviews, students and their beliefs in what future labor markets will demand from them, and governments seeking less turmoil among young constituents – each of these forces presents a challenge to the status quo. These issues are not unique to the United States and, I might add, are particularly critical in areas that have recently experienced political unrest. Regardless of the social and political climate, reform-minded individuals are challenging and questioning the traditional educational practices, goals, and values of higher education, and in particular those of the liberal arts.

Change is constant, inevitable, and should not be discouraged. My question, however, is: what ideas inform today’s changes in higher education and how should we think about them? The answer to such a question is, as you know, wide-ranging and worthy of a tome unto itself. In this post I will limit myself to what I believe to be one of the driving forces of this movement: an attempt to prepare students for a 21st century world of work.

One only has to look over the last few decades to understand the complexity of the question. When I graduated with my B.A. in the late seventies, many of my peers were looking to the business world as the place to stake their careers. At that point, it was the top accounting firms in Chicago and New York that held the most prized positions. By the initial stages of the digital revolution in the eighties, when I received my Ph.D., computer science was the place to make your mark. Today, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines serve as the choice of the decade for career-minded students and leaders. In fact, many countries, especially those I’m most familiar with in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), are investing a significant portion of their educational resources in business and STEM fields.

Careers related to STEM disciplines are not bad career choices, especially in parts of the world where technological innovation carries with it an implicit promise of financial advancement. But the study of technical fields alone ignores the lessons learned from the last few generations of professionals. A STEM-related degree may be a good choice today, but what will the working world look like twenty years from now? Will these fields have the potential to absorb the millions of workers trained over the next generation?

I don’t want to speculate on that, at least not yet. But I will claim the following: the only skills that won’t be obsolete in 2035 are those acquired through a liberal arts education! I’m referring to the bedrock of what a liberal arts education teaches: critical thinking, effective writing and other communication skills, flexible and multi-pronged problem solving, and the path to becoming a life-long learner.

We don’t know what the demand for engineers and business-trained workers will be in 2035, but we do know that we will need individuals who can think independently, solve problems, be flexible in the way they approach new and changing situations, and understand the value of continuing to learn throughout their career.

The agility of tomorrow’s work force is based on the skills learned by students today.  A liberal arts education teaches the relationship between tradition and change, self and other, and the past and present. It examines innovation as expressed in artistic, literary, and historical experience, as well as the cultural nuances embedded in culture, language, and the built environment. An education based on these fundamentals is the best preparation we can give today’s students. It’s also the best strategy to make certain that our educational resources continue to benefit students and markets beyond the current decade. Technologies may advance and economies may fluctuate, but the high value of the liberal arts will remain constant.

Richard R. Flores, Ph.D.
Senior Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Executive Director, UT Global Initiative for Education and Leadership

Certificates, badges, and portfolios: international education and micro-credentialing

Ask anyone in international education and you will hear the same story: the world of higher education is changing! Between online courses, online degrees, MOOCs, and joint degrees melded into changing political currents, concerns over loss of local intellectual talent (brain drain), the cost of education, and others, the future of international education —  while even more critical than ever — is an unchartered road.

I want to take up one concern, however briefly, and that is the changing structure of curriculum delivery.

When it comes to international education, long-term study abroad remains the gold standard. The ability of students to land in a foreign country and learn, through multiple immersive experiences, the language and daily routines and practices of another culture, is priceless.  To experience the world from the shores of another country makes possible a cultural dialogue, replete with all its missteps, anxieties, but also insight and understanding, that changes lives!

In today’s world, however, concerns over the high cost of studying outside one’s country, brain drain, and the ever more pragmatic, if not narrow, focus on technical fields of education, provide real challenges to long-term studies in another country.

There are many responses to this issue, but let me just address one here: the development of micro-credentials and curricula that are tailored to address the educational needs of international students whose home institutions have yet to develop particular areas of excellence. Not every college or university can, or should, meet the wide spectrum and ever expanding areas of academic offerings. Especially at a time when educational resources are stretched and the demand for higher education is outpacing its current availability, new strategies for providing academic training and a very high level are essential.

Micro-credentials—in the form of badges, certificates, or portfolios—are one solution. They provide focused, thematically-linked coursework and educational experiences that enrich and expand a student’s academic training. For undergraduate and graduate students micro-credentials, especially if taken over a summer or short term, provide unique educational opportunities of excellence that augment, without disrupting, the curricular trajectory of their home educational institution.

Summer International Graduate Portfolio

A clear example of micro-credentialing, one my home institution is exploring, is a summer international graduate portfolio or certificate. This is a thematic set of courses, for example, applied linguistics or health demography, that provides students with the analytical tools and academic content that enrich the degrees they are seeking at home. These programs provide opportunities for international students to obtain credentials in a cross-disciplinary academic area of inquiry while they are completing the requirements for a master’s or doctor’s degree in a particular discipline at their home institution.  The purpose is to provide international students with a thematic set of courses that are unavailable at their home institution and that complement their graduate program of work.

Momentum for an approach such as this is building. At a recent conference on higher education in the MENA (Middle East, North Africa) region, the idea of micro-credentials and certificates was received with some optimism. As participants commented, success for such initiatives rests on the the particular offerings and their fit within the curriculum design of the home institution.  That’s the next step: building a set of curricular offerings that compliment the needs of institutions of higher education abroad. At Texas, we’re on it!

Richard R. Flores, Ph.D.
Senior Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Executive Director, UT Global Initiative for Education and Leadership

Welcome from Executive Director Richard R. Flores

Welcome to the blog for the Global Initiative for Education and Leadership at The University of Texas at Austin.

For those of you unfamiliar with the UT Global Initiative, we are a consortium of recognized training programs at The University of Texas at Austin that delivers high-quality teacher training, faculty development, executive education, and English as a second language instruction. We are run out of the College of Liberal Arts, and offer a variety of training and educational programs to both domestic and international clientele.

Our consortium draws on the resources of the following programs at The University of Texas at Austin:

We also partner with the Title VI Area Studies Centers and Language Flagship programs housed in the College of Liberal Arts, which provide invaluable expertise and talent.

I am the Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Professor of Anthropology. I hold the C. B. Smith Chair in US-Mexico Relations and I am the author of several books and numerous articles. I conduct research in the area of Latino anthropology and cultural studies, historical anthropology, critical theory, and symbolic anthropology.

As Executive Director of UTGI, I talk to numerous scholars and academic leaders about the trends, changes, and challenges involved in higher education internationalization. I’ve had the opportunity to exchange ideas with a variety of government officials, business leaders, and educational administrators around the world, and to bring those ideas back to The University of Texas at Austin.

The dialogue about internationalization shouldn’t be limited to educational conferences and meetings, however, which is why I’m starting this blog: to share ideas about  international education. You can expect to hear about curricula, credentials, and global skills; I’ll also be commenting on the intersections of politics, culture, and higher education.

One concern I have is the need to rethink how we train international students. While many of the classic models are still viable, I think it behooves us to rethink how we work with international students and initiate new methods of educational delivery that are more adaptive to the international student community. I invite you to explore our website and learn more about who we are and what we do.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Richard R. Flores, Ph.D.
Senior Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Executive Director, UT Global Initiative for Education and Leadership