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Is There an Identity Crisis in the Humanities?

The national trends in higher education reflects that a declining number of students are pursuing majors in the humanities while increasing numbers are pursuing degrees in the natural sciences, particularly in the life sciences. This is causing an identity crisis for some academic programs in large comprehensive research universities.

A recent study shows that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the traditional humanities (English, literature, history, philosophy, etc.) has declined 8.7% from 2012 to 2014. Degrees in history declined a whopping 12%. As a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, degrees in the humanities is at the lowest recorded level ever – just 6.1%.

Universities are beginning to trim the number of humanities and social science degree programs they offer as a result. For example, Delaware State University recently announced it is discontinuing 23 majors, representing a quarter of all majors offered, this fall.

As a result of student enrollment declines in these disiplines, many large state research universities are experiencing a budget deficit in their Colleges of Arts and Sciences. The issue is compounded by the reality that ballooning college costs are driving students to seek out creative ways to earn general education college course credits before matriculation into a traditional four-year college or university. Students are entering with more AP credits and community college transfer credits, driving down the number of freshman and sophomores who need to take core humanities and social science courses needed to comply with university core requirements. The result is a downward spiral of students in seats and an increasing effort to keep the freshman and sophomore year relevant.

Meanwhile, at many of these same universities, enrollment in engineering and the sciences is swelling. Families are very aware of the escalating educational debt in the United States and students are more attentive to how various degree majors differ in demand in the marketplace.

One recent trend I have seen as a result of these enrollment trends is the re-casting of many humanities courses into a STEM related topic. Courses with topics like the History of Innovation and Social Implications of Technological Change are starting to emerge. As the wave of engineering and applied science students continues to build, the humanities are adapting to ride the wave of innovation.

This is a positive trend. As employers and global competitive realities demand more STEM graduates with the ability to think critically and from a more human context, the mash-up of applied technical skills with multi-cultural societal and humanistic perspectives will continue to increase. This is happening in an acellerated manner within various life sciences programs for example. The application of science to helping improve people’s lives is compelling.

As pedagogy quickly (a relative term) moves from information delivery in the classroom to active learning in the classroom, engineering and science curricula will better blend-in aspects of the humanities and traditional liberal arts by elevating expereintial learning in teams and between people. Whether faculty from the humanities will embrace more STEM perspectives or STEM faculty will embrace more humanitarian perspectives remains to be seen.

Either way, many of the traditional academic silos as starting to show cracks in their formidable walls.

Venturewell OPEN Conference 2016

Attending the 2016 Venturewell OPEN Conference in Portland, Oregon in early March was like playing in a large university marching band. There was a pounding rhythm of activity and a base drum beat of topics like makerspaces, entrepreneurial mindset, design thinking, i-teams, and change in engineering education. Attendees marched in-step to workshops, panels and receptions. We were all in-sych with the shared desire to infuse more innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) into engineering education. We all high-stepped with excitement towards renewed STEM learning in higher education.

What I enjoy most about these conferences is the opportunity to make new connections and hear what other universities are doing in the I&E space. I learned that Georgia Tech has removed ALL the books from their library and re-purposed the space for more student innovation activities. I also learned how different institutions are implementing a wide range of entrepreneurial activities across campus, and building new buildings with an entrepreneurship focus.

I participated as a speaker on a panel that talked about faculty mavericks in the I&E space. I was invited to participate on the panel because I operated as a kind of maverick on my campus. The conversation quickly moved to sharing experiences on how faculty who devote extensive time and energy to infusing I&E into their engineering programs when formal performance review metrics fail to recognize these contributions as important to the institution. When you help to create, plan and execute a new student innovation competition on campus, do you get any credit for doing so? What about mentoring student startup teams, or building relationships with external companies?

This is the issue, of course. When institutions recognize that I&E is an essential part of providing an active STEM learning environment but lag in recognizing the individuals who make it actually happen, a gap of frustration can build.

From what I witnessed at the conference, this gap is slowly closing. Many institutions are experiencing rapid changes in STEM education largely driven by non-research faculty passionate about the drum beat of topics like those featured in Portland. Marching on, with a smile on my face, I am happy to be a member of the band.

Creative Inquiry and Messy Problems

Higher education is starting to accelerate change. This is a wonderful turn of events, as the world is changing too.

One of the emerging innovations in undergraduate education is the focus on learning by doing. This takes many forms, but the objective is to engage students in the learning process so that they get more meaning out of the process. One exciting aspect of this trend is the concept of creative inquiry – providing resources where students can choose what they want to research and investigate and design how they wish to pursue it. Basically, rather than having a problem defined and served-up to the students, the students can explore open-ended problems that interest them.

Clemson University has a program directed to creative inquiry and Lehigh University has the Mountaintop Initiative. Both of these exciting programs offer unique opportunities for undergraduate students to explore cross-disciplinary problem areas and apply creative approaches to better understanding them and perhaps even advancing a solution. Typically, the programs are separate from the discipline-specific curriculum required by academic majors – but what if that could change too?

Arizona State University has created cross-disciplinary research centers that bring together researchers from multiple disciplines, co-locate them, and encourage their research to intersect. The ASU Biodesign Institute is one example. This is a bit like creative inquiry for faculty. So, perhaps there is a trend here . . .

In real life, problems are messy. They are not pre-formed and discipline specific. We need to provide students in higher education more opportunities to practice the craft of exploring messy problems – to creatively inquire about issues and problems that they care about.

This, after all, is what real learning is all about.

Do Elite Colleges Pay-Off?

Researchers recently published an article in the WSJ about whether prestigious colleges are worth the price. Does the high price of an elite college result is higher career incomes?

Not surprisingly, the answer is . . . it depends. It depends on the student’s major field of study according to the research. Generally, for students studying the liberal arts or business, prestige of the institution matters. The more elite schools produced higher future incomes in these disciplines. But in STEM fields, the institution had little, if any, impact on mid career incomes.

One of the benefits of elite institutions is the alumni network they provide. Those networks can be helpful in early career job searches and job placement. A graduate of a liberal arts program may have to rely upon such a network more than a STEM graduate for reasons of simple supply and demand. Connections matter. In STEM fields, perhaps skills trump prestige, but in liberal arts and business the choice of school may be important for future income.

The bigger question is how institutions differ in the learning opportunities and resources they provide. Some institutions offer truly exceptional learning opportunities like special institutes, unique undergraduate research opportunities, innovation or startup competitions, or freshman residential themed learning communities.

Sure, prestige is a powerful draw for many, but the learning experience means even more.


What Are Project Management Skills?

I teach project management in a Master’s program in management. For students who have not been exposed to project management as a discipline, many hope to learn a multi-step process that will result in project success.

For students with experience, they know this is nonsense.

Both traditional and agile project management methodologies demand advanced people skills. Pure technical skills are not enough. As we watch more organizations embrace agile more broadly (except you civil engineers), creativity, risk tolerance, and adaptability become more valuable.

Are we teaching engineering students enough of the people and communications skills to succeed in these agile environments? This is an important question. As engineering education changes to incorporate more of the social skills needed to succeed in a multicultural, hyper-competitive business environment, perhaps we will see the re-convergence of the liberal arts and the sciences.

Hooray!