Curricular approaches in American higher education today have arisen out of a historical tradition of educational integration, originally called liberal education, through which students were exposed to the full suite of human knowledge with the goal of preparing them for work, life, and civic participation. This holistic approach to education offered students a breadth of exposure to the diverse forms of knowledge and inquiry pursued and produced by the different academic disciplines—the humanities, the arts, the sciences, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. It also helped them to understand how this knowledge is connected. The goal was to impress upon students that all forms of human knowledge and inquiry are branches from the same tree.
In the twentieth century, this liberal approach to education evolved. Today students at most schools are still exposed to a broad array of disciplines through general education programs. That said, as the academic disciplines have specialized, and higher education institutions have developed administrative structures that are fragmented along disciplinary lines, some faculty and leaders in higher education are now questioning whether the education we are offering students today allows them to appreciate the connections between the disciplines. Many are now calling for a return to a more integrative approach to education. Proponents of a turn toward a more integrative approach in higher education argue that an education shaped by disciplinary specialization may not best serve the learning and career goals of most students or prepare future generations to address the complex, and often unpredictable, challenges and opportunities that will face the nation and the world in the twenty-first century. Indeed, many institutions of higher education have embraced this idea and have implemented
a range of different integrative courses and programs that aim to intentionally connect content and pedagogies across the humanities, arts, natural and physical sciences, social sciences, engineering, technology, mathematics, and medicine (see “Compendium of Programs and Courses That Integrate the Humanities, Arts, and STEMM” available at https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24988 under the Resources tab).
The charge to this committee was to examine the evidence of the impact of educational experiences that integrate the humanities and arts with the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine on both undergraduate and graduate students in terms of learning and career outcomes. To carry out our task we considered a diverse range of integrative programs and courses, some that are relatively new and others that are established at universities and have been running successfully for several decades. Our review of the existing evidence revealed a dearth of causal evidence on the impact of integrative courses and programs on students, which was unsurprising given the challenges of carrying out randomized, controlled, longitudinal research in higher education. But the committee does not consider causal studies the only legitimate form of evidence. We see value in multiple forms of evidence (e.g., narrative, anecdotal, case study, expert opinion, correlational, quasi-experimental, etc.) and acknowledge that the collection of evidence in the real world rarely, if ever, begins with a longitudinal, controlled trial. Rather, evidence is collected in stages and usually begins with observation and description.
After considering multiple forms of evidence, the committee found that certain approaches to the integration of the arts and humanities with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) are associated with positive student learning outcomes, including, but not limited to, written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking and deeper learning, content mastery, general engagement and enjoyment of learning, empathy, resilience, the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, and indicators of improved science literacy (Ebert-May et al., 2010; Gurnon et al., 2013; Ifenthaler et al., 2015; Jarvinen and Jarvinen, 2012; Krupczak, 2004; Krupczak and Ollis, 2006; Malavé and Watson, 2000; Naghshineh et al., 2008; Olds and Miller, 2004; Ousager and Johannessen, 2010; Pollack and Korol, 2013; Sands et al., 2008; Stolk and Martello 2015; Thigpen et al., 2004; Willson et al., 1995). These learning outcomes are associated with specific studies that have looked at diverse forms of integration (e.g., integration of engineering and history, integration of medicine and art observation, integration of neuroscience and poetry, etc.) that have adopted different pedagogical approaches (e.g., project-based learning, lecture, living-learning community, etc.) and have appeared in the curriculum in different ways (e.g., as a stand-alone course, co-curricular activity, fully integrated program). Given
this diversity it is not possible to make generalizations about the impact of integration as a general approach; however, the committee was struck by the fact that many of these learning outcomes are those that higher education institutions and employers agree will prepare students to enter the workforce, help them live enriched lives, and enable them to become active and informed members of a modern democracy.
Given that the available evidence is promising and indicates positive outcomes for students, the committee is urging a new nationwide effort to develop and fund the research agenda needed to collect the robust and multifaceted evidence that the broader educational community can accept, embrace, and apply to specific settings throughout the huge and complex landscape of American higher education. Though more research on the impact of integrative courses and programs is needed, the committee does not believe it is practical for institutions of higher education to wait to support and adopt integrative models. Rather, we recommend that institutions that view an integrative approach as potentially beneficial for their students move forward with the adoption of integrative courses and programs and evaluate them.
To be clear, the purpose of this report has not been to critique or reject existing disciplinary structures; the committee agrees that the disciplines remain essential, exceptionally valuable, and generative features of contemporary higher education. Rather, our purpose has been to highlight the extraordinary reservoir of potential that the disciplines represent and to evaluate strategies for harnessing that potential through integration.
The committee’s conclusions do point to the need for deep and sustained reflection about how institutional modes of organizing fields of knowledge may constrain or distort the potential for integration, in education and beyond. Furthermore, the committee has recognized that some of the most significant challenges to integration are institutional rather than intellectual. The gravitational pull of the disciplines shapes curricula, pedagogical approaches, scholarly practices, and allocations of institutional resources. At the same time, modest institutional commitments to create space for integrative approaches and scholars have the potential for far-reaching effects. In this regard, integration’s grand challenges, like societies, are also its most promising opportunities.
Chapter 2: Higher Education and the Demands of the Twenty-First Century
- The tradition of liberal education in the United States is holistic. Despite the diversity of institutional types and the diversity of
approaches and priorities within each institution, many institutions of higher education agree on essential learning outcomes that cut across general education and the majors.
- There are internal and external pressures that drive the intense disciplinary structure embedded in many institutions and serve as barriers to integration, including the influence of accrediting bodies; practices related to the training, promotion, and tenure of faculty; and budgetary structures.
- Higher education should prepare graduates for employment that does not narrowly align with the focus of their college major. Graduates should expect to have several jobs—and possibly several careers—in their lifetime.
- Surveys show that employers value graduates who have both technical depth in a given discipline and cross-cutting “twenty-first century” skills and knowledge, such as critical thinking, communications skills, the ability to work well in teams, ethical reasoning, and creativity.
- Many employers do not believe that higher education is appropriately preparing graduates for the workplace, while many higher education administrators and faculty do.
- Surveys show that students’ goals are aligned with employers’ goals and that students place value on doing well in college and finding a “good job” after college.
- Increasing enrollment in certain interdisciplinary courses and majors suggests that students are interested in integration.
- Integration has the potential to better equip students with the knowledge, skills, and competencies required of professionals and citizens in today’s complex, multidimensional, and challenging world.
Chapter 3: What Is Integration?
- The concept of integration is a broad one, encompassing different educational approaches in differing settings. Because of that breadth and variety, a singular, universally applicable definition of integration is difficult to achieve.
- In the research literature, the term “integration” may refer to educational experiences that bring together content and pedagogies in the arts, humanities, sciences, engineering, and medicine, or it may refer to courses and programs that integrate across other dimensions of learning, such as school and life (e.g., living-learning communities). In this study, we use the term “integration” to refer to the former.
- The theory and practice of curricular integration and integrative learning are evolving. As such, the evidence base and research methodologies are also developing and changing.
- Different approaches to integration can lead to different levels of integration, such as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, or transdisciplinary integration.
- Many different types of institutions are embracing new, more integrative approaches.
- Integrative educational experiences may take place in individual courses (in-course), within integrated curricular programs (within-curriculum), or outside of the formal curriculum (co-curricular).
Chapter 4: The Challenges of Assessing the Impact of Integration in Higher Education on Students
- Understanding the impact of integrative educational approaches is challenging for several reasons, including the following:
- Each discipline approaches evidence and value differently when evaluating the impact of integrative courses and programs.
- The wide variety of integrative programs, courses, and approaches may result in a wide variety of learning outcomes.
- Different faculty members and institutions may prioritize and evaluate different learning outcomes, even for similar courses or programs.
- Faculty or institutions may not have the time, resources, and expertise to evaluate learning outcomes.
- Given the newness of many integrative programs and courses, we do not currently have longitudinal data on the impact of such educational experiences on students.
- We conclude that it is appropriate and necessary to consider multiple forms of evidence when evaluating the impact of an educational experience on a student, and that approaches to evaluating the impact of courses and programs that integrate the humanities, arts, and STEMM will necessarily be diverse and should be aligned with the specific learning goals of the course or program in its own institutional context.
- Studying the effects of integration in higher education, like studying college student learning more generally, is a highly complex task that challenges precision and determinations of causation. For example, randomized, controlled, experimental approaches are rarely feasible, and even if researchers can isolate an aspect of an integrative experience appropriate for experimental study, they run
the risk of distilling out what was creating the experience’s effect in the first place.
- Higher education research has developed reliable, verifiable tools that provide valuable evidence on the impact of educational experiences on students, and these should continue to be used to elucidate the impact of integrative educational models.
Chapter 5: Understanding and Overcoming the Barriers to Integration in Higher Education
- Despite enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches in teaching and research, numerous challenges tend to discourage interdisciplinary integration—even within related fields. Rigid professional identities, disciplinary structures, and organizational and bureaucratic arrangements are interlinked in ways that tend to disincentivize interdisciplinary integration.
- Reappointment, promotion, and tenure often require faculty to meet teaching, research, and service expectations, all of which tend to be based on disciplinarily defined criteria and determined by senior members of their discipline. Thus, even though early career faculty are more inclined to be more innovative in research or teaching, they are also vulnerable to the potentially negative professional consequences of doing so.
- Many faculty members lack the preparation and expertise needed to offer integrative courses. There are, however, some faculty that have been trained in interdisciplinary fields, such as Arts, Media, and Engineering, or Science and Technology Studies, who are well positioned to teach integrative courses.
- Justifying interdisciplinary courses in budgetary allocations or incorporating them into curricula where accreditation standards disallow or appear to discourage departures from traditional, disciplinary practices may prove to be challenging for departments interested in fostering interdisciplinary integration.
- Some institutions have begun to change policies to explicitly include interdisciplinary scholarship within the criteria for promotion and tenure. The strategies at Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, and Indiana University Bloomington offer a few examples of how specific institutions have worked to break down the cultural and administrative barriers to integration.
Chapter 6: The Effects of Integration on Students at the Undergraduate Level
- The aggregate evidence from various sources, including the peer-reviewed literature, suggests that integration of the arts and humanities with STEM at the undergraduate level leads to certain positive learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, communications skills, the ability to work well in teams, content mastery, improved visuospatial skills, and improved motivation and enjoyment of learning. Additional positive outcomes include improved retention, better GPAs, and higher graduation rates.
- Many of the learning outcomes associated with the integration of the humanities and arts with STEM align with those that employers say they are looking for in recent graduates. These same learning outcomes are valued by many institutions of higher education and should serve students well in their personal and civic lives.
- Though evidence of the value of integrating STEM into the humanities and arts is limited, a survey of existing courses and programs suggests that such integration can offer students and scholars new tools and frameworks for humanistic and artistic inquiry and can lead to improved scientific and technological literacy among students.
- A catalog of known integrative programs, although not exhaustive, demonstrates that many integrative programs and courses are taking place at many different types of educational institutions.
- Emerging evidence suggests that integration positively affects the recruitment, learning, and retention of women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.
Chapter 7: Integration in Graduate and Medical Education
- Federal agencies (e.g., the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Endowment for the Arts) and private funding agencies (e.g., the Andrew W. Mellon and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundations) have offered limited support for programs that integrate STEM fields, the humanities, and the arts. The National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) is an example of how funding agencies can promote integrative graduate education.
- Graduate programs described in the published literature that integrate the humanities, arts, and STEM disciplines report positive
learning outcomes, though much of the evidence for these outcomes is anecdotal.
- Graduate programs are an important source of exploratory arts–humanities–STEMM integration and have at times led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields and areas of study (including Bioethics; Science, Technology, and Society; Media Arts; Human–Computer Interaction; and Digital Humanities). These interdisciplinary fields explore questions not addressed within traditional disciplines and tend to focus on issues of social relevance.
- Interdisciplinary graduate programs can make a valuable contribution to the preparation of future faculty and the development of institutional capacity for delivering integrative undergraduate experiences.
- In addition to preparing future faculty, graduate training programs are an important element in the larger ecosystem of integrative interdisciplinary teaching and research. We observed that institutions with significant undergraduate integrative education also demonstrated institutional support for graduate training programs and faculty hiring and research support in integrative interdisciplinary fields.
- Administrative and budgetary structures of higher education may either support or constrain the development of interdisciplinary courses and programs.
- Crossing the boundaries of disciplines, courses, and programs requires a conscious effort by administrators to provide incentives and support for integration.
- Scholars in interdisciplinary fields learn how to move between disciplinary approaches, recognize their critical limitations, and integrate them. As such, they represent an important reservoir of experience and expertise about how to pursue integration more broadly.
- Courses and programs that integrate the arts and humanities with medical and premedical training are associated with improved visual diagnostic skills, resiliency, empathy, and self-efficacy.
Based on our findings, this committee has concluded that higher education should strive to offer all students—regardless of degree or area of concentration—an education that exposes them to diverse forms of human knowledge and inquiry and that impresses upon them that all disciplines are “branches of the same tree.” Such an education should empower students to understand the fundamental connections among the diverse branches of human inquiry—the arts, humanities, sciences, social sciences, mathematics, engineering, technology, and medicine.
Though the evidence on the impact of integrative educational approaches is limited, it suggests potential benefits to students that warrant future research. The outcomes associated with various approaches to integration—improved written and oral communications skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking and deeper learning, content mastery, general engagement and enjoyment of learning, empathy, resilience, the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, and indicators of improved science literacy—are encouraging. It is our consensus opinion that integrative approaches in higher education have the potential to benefit graduates in work, life, and civic engagement.
While it is true that the current evidence base limits our ability to draw causal links between integrative curricula in higher education and student learning and career outcomes, given how difficult and time consuming it is to carry out controlled, longitudinal studies in higher education, we do not believe it is practical for institutions with an interest in pursuing more integrative approaches to wait for more robust causal evidence before adopting, supporting, and evaluating integrative programs. This committee has concluded that the available evidence is sufficient to urge support for courses and programs that integrate the arts and humanities with STEMM in higher education. Below we enumerate the specific recommendations that fulfill this vision.
Recommendation 1: This committee has concluded that the available evidence is sufficient to urge the support and evaluation of courses and programs that integrate the arts and humanities with the natural sciences, social sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine in higher education. Therefore, we recommend the following:
- Individual campus departments and schools, campus-wide teams, and campus-employer collaborators should consider developing and implementing new models and programs of STEMM–arts–humanities integration.
- Developers of integrative programs and courses should include a strong evaluation component to measure the effectiveness of integrative educational models on student learning and workforce readiness. This evaluation component should include, but not be limited to, longitudinal studies of student outcomes and should be developed in collaboration with scholars of higher education research.
- Funders—including federal agencies, states, and private foundations—should support evaluation of such models and programs.
Recommendation 2: Students should insist on, and institutions should provide, an academic experience that prepares them for life, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century by strengthening their critical thinking, communications skills, ability to work well in teams, content mastery, motivation, and engagement with learning. Institutions should continue to evaluate and explore the connection between such learning outcomes and integrative curricular models.
Recommendation 3: When working to implement integrative curricular models, institutions should set aside resources for the hiring, research, teaching activities, and professional development of faculty who are capable of teaching integrative courses or programs.
Recommendation 4: Institutions and employers should collaborate to better understand how graduates who participated in courses and programs that integrate the humanities and arts with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine fare in the workplace throughout their career. Specifically:
- Institutions should survey alumni to gain a sense of how their education, particularly the integrative aspects of their programs, has served them in work, life, and civic engagement. Institutions should share the results of such surveys with employers.
- Employers should gather and share with institutions information about the educational experiences, especially integrative experiences, that lead to employee success.
- Where possible, institutions and employers should find ways to collaborate on these activities.
Recommendation 5: Professional artistic, humanistic, scientific, and engineering societies should work together to build, document, and study integrative pilot programs and models to support student learning and innovative scholarship at the intersection of disciplines.
Recommendation 6: Proponents of disciplinary integration in higher education, including faculty and administrators, should work with scholars of higher education and experts in the humanities, arts, natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, technology, mathematics, and medicine to establish agreement on the expected learning outcomes of an integrative educational experience and work to design scalable, integrative approaches to assessment.
Recommendation 7: Stakeholders (e.g., faculty, administrators, and scholars of higher education research) should employ multiple forms
of inquiry and evaluation when assessing courses and programs that integrate the humanities, arts, natural sciences, social sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medical disciplines, including qualitative, quantitative, narrative, expert opinion, and portfolio-based evidence. Stakeholders should also consider developing new evaluation methodologies for integrative courses and programs.
Recommendation 8: Given the challenges of conducting controlled, randomized, longitudinal research on integrative higher education programs, we recommend two potential ways forward: (1) institutions with specific expertise in student learning outcomes (e.g., schools of education) could take a leadership role in future research endeavors, and (2) several institutions could form a multisite collaboration under the auspices of a national organization (e.g., a higher education association) to carry out a coordinated research effort. In either case, efforts to identify the appropriate expertise and support necessary to conduct such research should be a priority.
Recommendation 9: Institutions should perform a cultural audit of courses, programs, and spaces on campus where integration is already taking place, partnering with student affairs professionals to evaluate programs and initiatives intended to integrate learning between classroom and nonclassroom environments, and working with teaching and learning centers to develop curricula for faculty charged with teaching for or within an integrative experience.
Recommendation 10: Further research should focus on how integrative educational models can promote the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in specific areas of the natural sciences, social sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine, arts, and humanities, and all research efforts should account for whether the benefits of an integrative approach are realized equitably.
Recommendation 11: Institutions should work to sustain ongoing integrative efforts that have shown promise, including but not limited to, new integrative models of general education.
Recommendation 12: New designs for general education should consider incorporating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary integration, emphasizing applied and engaged learning and connections between general education and specialized learning throughout the undergraduate years and across the arts, humanities, and STEMM disciplines.
Recommendation 13: When implementing integrative curricula, faculty, administrators, and accrediting bodies need to explore, identify, and mitigate constraints (e.g., tenure and promotion criteria, institutional budget models, workloads, accreditation, and funding sources) that hinder integrative efforts in higher education.
Recommendation 14: Academic thought leaders working to facilitate integrative curricular models should initiate conversations with the key accrediting organizations for STEMM, the arts, and higher education to ensure that the disciplinary structures and mandates imposed by the accreditation process do not thwart efforts to move toward more integrative program offerings.
Recommendation 15: Both federal and private funders should recognize the significant role they can and do play in driving integrative teaching, learning, and research. We urge funders to take leadership in supporting integration by prioritizing and dedicating funding for novel, experimental, and expanded efforts to integrate the arts, humanities, and STEMM disciplines. Sustained support will be necessary to realize the long-term impact of new approaches to disciplinary integration.
Recommendation 16: Interdisciplinarity adds an additional layer of complexity to pedagogy. Professional development of current and future faculty is necessary to promote interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Additional research on effective pedagogical practices for interdisciplinary learning is needed.