UBC President's Speeches and Writings

Full STEAM Ahead : The Role of Arts in the 21st Century University Ono, Santa Jeremy Mar 17, 2017

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1		Full	STEAM	Ahead:	The	Role	of	Arts	in	the	21st	Century	University	Friday,	March	17,	2017	Faculty	of	Arts,	University	of	British	Columbia		Santa	J.	Ono					The	“liberal	arts”	today	are	generally	understood	to	mean	the	arts	and	social	sciences,	as	distinct	from	the	physical	sciences	and	technology.			But	“liberal	arts”	used	to	be	applied	to	all	the	skills	that	would	enable	a	person	to	act	as	a	responsible	citizen	In	that	sense,	when	we	speak	of	STEM	subjects	versus	the	humanities	versus	professional	education,	we	can	be	said	to	be	drawing	a	distinction	where,	really,	there	is	no	difference.		Properly	educated,	anyone	–	whether	an	engineer,	a	lawyer,	a	philosopher,	artist	or	mathematician	–	should	be	able	to	participate	in	society	We	should	be	talking	about	STEAM,	not	STEM	–	Science,	Technology,	Engineering,	Arts	and	Mathematics		But	increasingly	we	have	raised	barriers	between	subject	areas;	we	have	put	greater	and	greater	value	in	specialization,	working	from	the	theory	that	our	students	must	be	masters	of	their	chosen	field,	requiring	them	to	dedicate	themselves	to	a	particular	subject	The	danger	of	such	divisions	and	specializations	has	long	been	recognized;	perhaps	most	memorably	by	C.	P.	Snow,	the	English	2		novelist,	who,	in	1959,	warned	of	the	danger	of	the	“two	cultures”.		Let	me	quote	from	his	lecture:	A	good	many	times	I	have	been	present	at	gatherings	of	people	who,	by	the	standards	of	the	traditional	culture,	are	thought	highly	educated	and	who	have	with	considerable	gusto	been	expressing	their	incredulity	at	the	illiteracy	of	scientists.	Once	or	twice	I	have	been	provoked	and	have	asked	the	company	how	many	of	them	could	describe	the	Second	Law	of	Thermodynamics.	The	response	was	cold:	it	was	also	negative.	Yet	I	was	asking	something	which	is	the	scientific	equivalent	of:	Have	you	read	a	work	of	Shakespeare’s?	Snow’s	fear	was	that	British	education	was	falling	behind	the	education	provided	in	other	countries	because	it	overvalued	the	humanities	and	the	arts,	at	the	expense	of	science.		Today	we	seem	to	have	moved	to	the	other	extreme:	our	society	is	calling	for	more	and	more	graduates	of	science	and	technology,	granting	the	arts	a	smaller	and	smaller	portion	of	the	educational	pie.		We	need	to	restore	some	balance:	to	promote	the	idea	that	a	liberal	arts	education	is	as	important	to	the	life	of	society	as	science	and	technology.	We	want	to	emphasize	that	the	skills	acquired	by	graduates	of	liberal	arts	programs	will	prepare	them	for	the	demands	of	a	career	in	the	professions;	and	we	want	to	affirm	that	true	literacy	requires	students	in	any	field	to	have	at	least	a	rudimentary	understanding	of	the	basic	principles	of	the	arts	and	the	sciences.			3		So,	for	example,	a	graduate	in	fine	arts	should	have	enough	scientific	understanding	of	geology	and	chemistry	to	understand	the	nature	of	the	mineral	pigments	used	in	the	manufacture	of	paint.	Conversely,	a	medical	science	graduate	should	know	something	of	the	rich	literature	regarding	sickness	and	health,	and	birth	and	death;	and	a	civil	engineer	should	be	aware	of	the	philosophical	discussions	around	where	technology	ends	and	humanity	begins.		I	think	this	is	something	we	can	all	agree	with.		Where	we	run	into	difficulty	is	in	persuading	students	that	there	is	practical	value	in	their	acquiring	some	understanding	of	fields	other	than	their	chosen	discipline.				At	UBC,	like	many	institutions,	we	have	tried	to	apply	the	principle	of	breadth	in	undergraduate	education	by	imposing	program	requirements;	so	a	Science	major,	for	example,	must	take	at	least	12	credits	in	Arts,	as	well	as	up	to	six	credits	in	English.	This	would	seem	to	allow	for	some	reasonable	exposure	to	disciplines	outside	the	area	of	one’s	specialty	Unfortunately,	sometimes	such	electives	are	essentially	add-ons,	courses	that	may	have	little	or	no	relevance	to	a	student’s	ultimate	disciplinary	objectives.	To	deal	with	this,	some	of	our	colleagues	at	UBC	have	approached	the	issue	from	another	angle:	to	offer	students	courses	and	programs	that	cross	disciplines,	bringing	the	arts	and	the	STEM	subjects	into	a	more	coherent	relationship.			4		In	Applied	Science,	for	example,	Engineering	students	have	some	interesting	options:	they	must	take	a	minimum	of	20	credits	in	what	are	called	“complementary	studies,”	which	cover	seven	different	areas:	Engineering	economics;		the	impact	of	technology	on	society;		electives	in	Humanities	and	the	social	sciences;		communications;		health	and	safety;		professional	ethics,	equity	and	law;		and	finally,	sustainable	development	and	environmental	stewardship.			The	goal	here	is	to	enable	students	to	see	their	STEM	subjects	from	different	perspectives,	and	to	encourage	a	more	questioning	and	critical	stance	than	was	apparent	among	engineers	in	the	past.	Alternatively,	you	here	in	the	Faculty	of	Arts	offer	a	dual	degree	program	with	Applied	Science.			In	this	demanding	five-year	program,	students	must	meet	all	the	program	requirements	for	a	Bachelor	of	Arts	and	a	Bachelor	of	Applied	Science	degree.			Indeed,	the	dual	degree	is	beginning	to	attract	students	in	a	variety	of	fields:	over	the	past	year	we	graduated	a	number	of	students	with	dual	degrees	in	Science	and	Music	–	a	marriage	that	I	as	a	scientist	and	musician	can	heartily	endorse.	5		another	group	twinned	Science	with	majors	in	International	Relations,	English,	and	Economics.	Such	developments	are	useful	alternatives	to	traditional	disciplinary	concentrations,	and	are	helping	to	breathe	new	life	into	the	BA.			But	what	we	are	beginning	to	realize	is	that	the	liberal	arts	must	open	themselves	up		to	new	ideas,	not	only	about	the	rapidly	changing	kinds	of	pedagogy	that	are	transforming	education	at	every	level,	but	also	about	the	nature	of	the	liberal	arts	themselves	and	their	role	in	modern	society.	At	UBC,	without	shedding	any	of	the	values	associated	with	the	humanities	and	the	social	sciences,	we	are	responding	to	pressures	for	change	by	introducing	new	courses	to	prepare	students	for	work	in	fields	that	barely	existed	a	decade	ago.			A	student	in	Arts	can	now	take	a	program	in	Cognitive	Systems,	in	which	the	participating	units	are	Philosophy,	Psychology,	Linguistics,	and	Computer	Science.			Through	the	interwoven	study	of	these	fields,	the	student	gains	a	comprehensive	understanding	of	human	cognition,	and	learns	to	apply	this	knowledge	to	create	intelligent	artificial	systems.			Our	Bachelor	of	Media	Studies	program	involves	courses	from	art	history,	film	studies,	English	literature,	information	studies,	and	computer	science.			6		In	partnership	with	three	other	institutions	in	Vancouver,	we	also	offer	a	Master	of	Digital	Media	program	which	assists	students	find	internships	with	companies	like	Google,	EA,	and	Microsoft,	where	their	learning	is	translated	into	real-life	projects.	Your	own	Faculty	of	Arts	also	houses	a	master’s	program	in	Science	and	Technology	Studies,	a	transdisciplinary	field	that	explores	the	human	dimensions	of	science	and	technology.			Topics	include	how	to	understand	the	development	of	scientific	practices	and	technological	objects	in	social	contexts,	the	relations	between	science	and	public	policy,	and	cultural	representations	of	science	and	technology.	These	are	just	a	few	examples	of	how	the	Arts	and	STEM	subjects	are	now	beginning	to	intersect	in	ways	we	could	never	have	predicted	a	few	years	ago.		Such	interrelatedness	is	essential	if	we	are	to	give	our	students	the	kind	of	preparation	that	will	prepare	them	for	a	profession	beyond	the	BA	or	the	BSc	in	an	increasingly	technology-oriented	workplace.	Indeed,	we	should	be	calling	it	STEAM,	not	STEM,	for	Science,	Technology,	Engineering,	Arts	and	Mathematics.	Through	a	combination	of	carefully	crafted	curricular	learning	objectives	in	the	classroom	and	experiential	learning	in	internships	or	co-ops,	the	liberal	arts	student	at	UBC	is	encouraged	to	cultivate	a	unique	professional	identity,	an	identity	that	reflects	their	personal	interests	7		while	at	the	same	time	giving	them	the	tools	they	need	to	succeed	in	a	world	that	is	increasingly	shaped	by	science	and	technology.			And	on	the	other	side	of	the	coin,	engineering	and	science	graduates	are	beginning	to	discover	the	social	and	ethical	implications	of	their	disciplines	through	new	breadth	requirements	and	arts	electives.		What	we’re	all	aiming	for	is	to	create	an	environment	in	which	our	students	are	exposed	to	a	variety	of	ideas,	and	acquire	the	knowledge	and	skills	that	will	enable	them	to	achieve	their	personal	goals	and	become	responsible	members	of	society,	regardless	of	their	choice	of	profession.			We	need	not	be	put	off	by	labels	like	“professionalization”;	rather,	we	should	recognize	that	science,	technology,	and	the	liberal	arts	are	the	necessary	means	by	which	our	students	find	their	pathway	into	a	career	and	a	rich,	fulfilled	life,	and	that	they	are	interdependent.	Science	and	technology	give	us	the	“What”	and	the	“How”	of	our	material	existence;	the	liberal	arts	answer	the	essential	question,	“Why?”	And	without	the	answer	to	that	question,	society	could	not	move	forward	in	any	meaningful	way,	regardless	of	any	advances	in	science	and	technology.	Thank	you.	


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