Full STEAM ahead

President Obama’s State of the Union address yielded one sound bite that has been replayed and re-examined a great deal. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said, arguing for a concerted effort to reinvest in the foundations of the American economy.

Some commentators have interpreted that invocation of the 50-year-old Soviet satellite’s launch as a call for renewed investments in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). To be sure, these are worthy areas on which to focus. However, scientific innovation will require educators and policy makers to think more broadly and boldly.

Over the past six months, I have been reading about a movement among educators and scientists to integrate the arts into STEM education initiatives. (Wheaton Professor of Education Vicki Bartolini is engaged in a planning effort aimed at early childhood classrooms.) The resulting new acronym, STEAM, has provided a rallying point for some academics to assert the value of the arts in education. Personally, I was already convinced. Based on my own experience, I have always believed that there is a relationship between proficiency and natural ability in the arts and a proclivity toward math and science. A number of research studies seem to support this idea, particularly the link between math and music. Nonetheless, this emerging point of view underscores just how prescient the Wheaton faculty were when they developed the “Connections Curriculum” almost 10 years ago.

The connections concept requires students to enroll in a set of courses connected across disciplinary boundaries. The faculty developed this approach through two years of inquiry and discussion about the kinds of learning students would need in order to prosper in the 21st century. During their deliberations, it became clear to the faculty that problem solving, decision making and critical thinking would require crossing disciplinary borders more frequently. Put another way: students will need to make connections between and among disparate disciplines in order to function effectively.

It is interesting to note that about 40 percent of the connected courses at Wheaton combine science, math or computer science with the arts, humanities and social sciences. A case in point: “Living Architecture,” which connects courses on cell biology and art history through examination of structures. English professor Samuel Coale wrote about a fascinating connection between modern physics and astronomy in a course examining the ways in which contemporary American fiction has been influenced by quantum theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The Wheaton course catalog offers many more examples.

The importance of building bridges among the arts and sciences cannot be overstated. The disciplines that comprise each area of study pursue understanding of the world with differing concerns, methodologies and perspectives. While each discipline is powerful in its own right, the arts and sciences are far more than the sum of their parts, when combined. Indeed, proponents for the sciences, like their counterparts in the arts, continue to call attention to the importance of scientific literacy for all citizens. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a collection of essays last year, Science and the Educated American, designed to inspire college faculty across the country to devise innovative methods to ensure that all students, no matter their major, become knowledgeable about the means and methods of science. In other words, they achieve civic scientific literacy, a term coined in the mid-’70s.

We can take great pride in the fact that the Wheaton community can point to its own distinctive efforts to promote the arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences. The new Mars Center for Science and Technology, which will open in the fall, will make tangible our commitment to the full range and depth of the liberal arts and sciences. The design of this facility will feature spaces—from flexible labs to group work areas and a café—that encourage cross-disciplinary learning. It is a building that will serve our entire academic community.

In every sense, the new Mars Center has been years in the making. I look forward to celebrating the opening of the new building in September during the college’s Homecoming & Family Weekend (September 23–25). It will be a triumph not only of the philanthropy that made it possible, but also of our deepest values as a community.

Full steam ahead.