Stem: Moving the Liberal Arts Education into the 21st Century

By Bevins, Scott | Technology and Engineering Teacher, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Stem: Moving the Liberal Arts Education into the 21st Century


Bevins, Scott, Technology and Engineering Teacher


[Liberal arts and STEM] must work together to ensure that our students are given the greatest opportunity for success in a global economy.

Since the beginning of time, education has played a significant role in advancing societies, both technologically and socially. While economies around the world have fluctuated throughout history, the globe has continued to witness new discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations; and with those have come higher living standards and an improved quality of life. The resource most vital to such success has and continues to be labor. While production processes have shifted from labor intensiveness to capital intensiveness, the importance of labor has not waned. Instead, the focus has moved from the "physical" aspect of labor to today's emphasis on "human capital" that is, the knowledge and skills possessed by the individual. As new technology is developed, corresponding changes must be made in retraining the current workforce as well as in educating the future workforce. Education and training must be dynamic and adjust and adapt to changes in technology. What does this mean for the traditional liberal arts education? How has the Information Age and today's knowledge-based global economy impacted the importance of the liberal arts versus technical disciplines such as engineering, computer science, and technology education? Are the liberal arts becoming less relevant and thus less valued in today's society? The answers to these questions will be explored in the pages that follow.

Liberal Versus Technical Education

The debate over which is more important, a liberal education or a technical education, has existed for more than 2,000 years. A liberal education has historically referred to the "arts, humanities, and the sciences" (Balmer, 2006, p. 75), while technical education (industrial arts, and vocational training) referred to learning a trade, such as crafting, carpentry, and blacksmithing, or more recently, cosmetology, auto-mechanics, drafting, and electronics. In 1974, Stoddard believed the liberal arts conveyed the following attributes:

* The subject matter is enduring.

* The subject matter is whole.

* The method of teaching is adjusted to the nonspecialized interests of the students.

* The student approaches the subject matter without reference to application.

* The university plan embraces the liberal arts (p. 138).

However, he was quick to acknowledge that the aforementioned attributes also contributed to their diminished part in secondary and higher education. Bauer (n.d.) saw "a classical education [as] more than simply a pattern of learning. Classical education is language-focused; learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken, rather than through images (pictures, videos, and television)" (par. 6).

Students today are very different from those of past decades. Their lives have been surrounded by technology--technology such as Apple's iPod and iPad, Blackberry's PlayBook, and TiVo--that provides them with multiple forms of entertainment, such as music and games or the ability to record a full season of a television show or instantly connect with Netflix for streaming movies; global positioning technology (GPS) that, through the use of satellites, directs them to their destination as well as provides them with alternative routes when encountering unexpected traffic incidences; and artificial intelligence, a key component in the new Apple iPhone 4S. As a result of such technological developments, traditional teaching or lecturing will not work with all students today. Today's student needs hands-on applications. He or she needs to "experience" learning, to actively engage in the learning process. Such demands are easily fulfilled in the technical disciplines, such as technology education and engineering.

Engaging the student in the learning process with hands-on activities and increased communications is not a new concept. …

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