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The Role of STEM in a Liberal Arts Education

By Michael Wirtz, Assistant Head of School and Dean of Faculty

“In my perspective … science and computer science is a liberal art, it’s something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It’s not something that should be relegated to 5 percent of the population over in the corner. It’s something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that’s how we viewed computation and these computation devices.”  – Steve Jobs, from a 1996 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross

At St. Mark’s, a school with a proud and strong liberal arts tradition, there has been a fair share of head scratching and hand wringing about the role of the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education initiative in our future.  During the early evolution of this initiative, I was often asked, “Is St. Mark’s trying to become the MIT of the ISL?”  When I answered “no”, that response often produced a notable sigh of relief.  (In a different article, perhaps I can respond to those who went on to ask, “Well, why not?!?”)  Given our liberal arts approach to education, it may seem counterintuitive or even confusing for some that St. Mark’s is focusing so much attention on the STEM subjects.  However, the nature and pace of change in the larger world makes forward progress and increased attention on this aspect of our program imperative to meeting our mission to educate “young people for lives of leadership and service.”

From the Stone Age to the Iron Age to the Industrial Revolution, major advances in technology have always ushered in significant change for mankind.  The arrow of time continues for the generations shaping and being shaped by the Information Age.  We live in a moment when access to information is more democratic than ever.  The ubiquity of smartphones and an ever-growing wireless footprint has put the whole of the world’s knowledge in our pockets.  Additionally, transformative changes in technology have blurred the line between consumer and producer, whether in the form of desktop publishing, do-it-yourself movie production, or 3-D printing.  The sum total of these changes is that the world is smaller, more interconnected, and more interdependent than ever before.

And while this era of significant change has ramifications for the “larger world beyond our campus,” there are just as many implications for educational institutions and the future of education.  The Steve Jobs’ quotation that leads this article speaks to the need for a shift in educational perspective on the sciences.  Jobs, whose lifework led to the ubiquitous nature of technology into our daily lives, advocated that a broader segment of the population needed to better understand the sciences as part of being responsibly educated citizens in the Information Age.  The influence of technology is too important for only a narrow segment of the population to comprehend.  Increasing the levels of STEM literacy in our country and around the world will require that schools at every level adapt curriculum and approaches to meet the demands of society in these disciplines, giving students a solid grounding in these disciplines and the concordant skill sets.

The importance of the STEM initiative in the future of St. Mark’s extends beyond change in curriculum and pedagogy, however.  It is readily apparent that the STEM fields have a more prominent role in our world than ever before.  Governments around the world, including that of the United States, believe that jobs from the STEM sectors will be a key driver of their economies.  These countries have been prioritizing the creation of additional STEM jobs, thereby requiring more STEM graduates to fill them.  Beyond job creation and industry demand, there is a growing need for STEM literacy as a characteristic of an informed citizenry.  For instance, advances in medical technology have improved quality of life and health care.  However, these developments have also raised numerous ethical and moral issues.  From stem cell research to gene therapy, many issues wind up in the public sphere as part of political debates, referendums, and ballot issues.  It is critical that St. Mark’s continuously and vigorously examine its practices and program to best support student learning and preparation for future success.  Given the way science and technology have influenced and will continue to influence our lives, it is important that St. Mark’s offer the best possible preparation in these disciplines.

It is in this global context that St. Mark’s embarked on a STEM initiative.  Education is moving away from students quietly sitting in the presence of learned scholars who share their knowledge and then test and drill using repetitive exercises.  Instead, students are expected to be actively participating in the learning process.  The STEM fields are well-suited to this changing dynamic, as they allow for problem solving in context and lend themselves easily to active learning models.  To this end, St. Mark’s articulated goals related to the overall student experience (and not just for those students who self-identify as motivated learners in the STEM disciplines), especially as it relates to classroom experience.  For example, members of the Mathematics, Science, and Computer Science Departments are currently revising and reshaping curriculum using the Understanding by Design framework, which helps teachers purposefully think through overall course and unit goals to ensure alignment between skill development, content, and assessment tools.  Additionally, faculty are experimenting with new pedagogies, including flipped classrooms, team-based and collaborative learning models, and massive open on-line courses (MOOC’s).  The experimentation and exploration present in this work are a direct reflection of the changing nature of the external world.

St. Mark’s, by virtue of its continuous operation since the end of the Civil War, has adapted to external changes throughout its history, always maintaining a focus on doing what is in the best interest of students to prepare them for their future.  Our school’s adaptation has come in many forms, from co-education to the integration of technology, from the revision of curriculum to the adoption of novel pedagogies.  The school’s current focus on STEM education builds on that tradition, providing St. Mark’s an avenue to redefine the skills and experiences necessary for students to succeed in the Information Age…and beyond.

Michael Wirtz is in his fourth year at St. Mark’s in the role of Assistant Head/Dean of Faculty.  He also teaches AP Chemistry and is leading the School’s STEM initiative. 

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