Are Interdisciplinary Studies The Future of STEM Education?

By Martin Towar

Kevin Finson, Bradley University

With the recent news that the much discussed and much feared science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field shortage may, according to the Business Insider, just be a bunch of Silicon Valley businesses unwilling to increase salaries, one might be forgiven for thinking other problems with STEM were equally facetious and STEM education is doing fine. However, this may not be the case. In fact, the STEM education field may need an injection of interdisciplinary studies to keep it healthy.

Back in June 2012, the senior vice president of human resources and administration at Boeing, Rick Stephens, spoke at the 2012 U.S. News Stem Summit about the need for STEM education to be based in what he called the "real world." By that he meant getting STEM students out of the classroom and giving them "real world" scenarios to solve. And Stephens is not alone.

Kevin Finson, Bradley University's Center for STEM Education co-director and professor of teacher education, stressed the importance of interdisciplinary study in STEM education.

"As we get students further down the line we realize it's not just biology and it's not just engineering anymore, it's now bioengineering," he said. "You get these hybrids, and I think we need to find ways to more effectively and more frequently help students see those interconnections and how the different STEM disciplines really do work together to help us solve problems and move forward."

Mr. Finson didn't stop there. Combining two STEM fields might not be enough; schools may have to combine STEM disciplines with non-STEM disciplines, such as art or graphic design with mathematics or engineering.

"Visual arts are an extremely important part of how we communicate information in the STEM fields," Finson said, adding that currently STEM students aren't taught what constitutes good visual communication or even how to create a quality presentation.

"They do those things over in the visual arts and fine arts departments, and it's kind of like they are off doing their thing and we are doing ours, but there are really some major connections," he said.

Indeed, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, while surveyed employers said they would prefer colleges to "place more emphasis" on science and technology, they would also prefer colleges place even more of an emphasis on written and oral communication, critical thinking, complex problem solving, teamwork skills and even creativity. This was published back in 2010.

According to Finson, this connection between two or more STEM fields and even STEM and non-STEM fields can make the difference between students dabbling in STEM and students majoring in STEM.

"I think if we do more of that, then we will start seeing more of a filtering through of this kind of information to students so that it becomes more than just a dabbling in some STEM interest," Finson said. "It might become more of an interest area for them that they might then be able to pursue more as a career option."

"Maybe your major is art, but maybe it now becomes art related to the STEM field. We're working at that," he added.

Interview with Kevin Finson, Bradley University's Center for STEM Education co-director and professor of teacher education, interviewed by Jamar Ramos, TechSchool.com, May 2013

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