Albert Einstein once said, “all religions, arts, and sciences are branches from the same tree” (Einstein, 2006, p. 7). This holistic view of all human knowledge and inquiry as fundamentally connected is reflected in the history of higher education—from the traditions of Socrates and Aristotle, to the era of industrialization, to the present day. This view holds that a broad and interwoven education is essential to the preparation of citizens for life, work, and civic participation. An educated and open mind empowers the individual to separate truth from falsehood, superstition and bias from fact, and logic from illogic.
In the United States, broad study in an array of different disciplines—including the arts, humanities, sciences, and mathematics—as well as in-depth study within a special area of interest, has been a defining characteristic of higher education. But over time, the curriculum at many colleges and universities has become focused and fragmented along disciplinary lines. This change in higher education has been driven, in part, by increasing specialization in the academic disciplines and the associated cultural and administrative structure of modern colleges and universities. Now many leaders, faculty, scholars, and students have been asking whether higher education has moved too far from its integrative tradition toward an approach heavily rooted in disciplinary “silos.” These silos represent what many see as an artificial separation of academic disciplines.
This study examined an important trend in higher education: efforts to return to—or in some cases to preserve—a more integrative model of higher education that proponents argue will better prepare students for work, life, and citizenship. This integrative model intentionally seeks to bridge the
knowledge, modes of inquiry, and pedagogies from multiple disciplines—the humanities, arts, sciences, engineering, technology, mathematics, and medicine—within the context of a single course or program of study. In such a model, professors help students to make the connections between these disciplines in an effort to enrich and improve learning. A diverse array of colleges and universities now offer students integrative courses and programs, and many faculty are enthusiastic advocates for this educational approach. But this movement in higher education raises an important question: what is the impact of these curricular approaches on students?
To address this question, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a 22-member committee to examine “the evidence behind the assertion that educational programs that mutually integrate learning experiences in the humanities and arts with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) lead to improved educational and career outcomes for undergraduate and graduate students.” The committee conducted an in-depth review and analysis of the state of knowledge on the impact of integrative approaches on students.
EVIDENCE FOR THE OUTCOMES OF INTEGRATION
The case for integrating the arts, humanities, and STEMM fields in higher education must ultimately rest on evidence that is sufficiently convincing to inspire the adoption of such models in undergraduate and graduate education. Over the course of our study, we examined a broad array of evidence related to integration to draw our conclusions, including the research literature, examples of integrative programs, input from experts who met with the committee and responded to a “Dear Colleague” letter, public input, employer surveys, and other information relevant to the effort. In the spirit of integration, we also examined diverse forms of evidence, including personal testimony from faculty, administrators, students, and employers on the value of an integrative approach to education; essays and thought pieces that make logical arguments for integration based on observations and evidence about common practices in higher education today; and formal and informal evaluations of courses and programs carried out by institutions.
Despite the many challenges of assessing the impact of integrative educational approaches on students, the available research does permit several broad conclusions to be made:
- Aggregate evidence indicates that some approaches that integrate the humanities and arts with STEM have been associated with positive learning outcomes. Among the outcomes reported are
increased critical thinking abilities, higher-order thinking and deeper learning, content mastery, problem solving, teamwork and communication skills, improved visuospatial reasoning, and general engagement and enjoyment of learning (see Tables 6-1 and 6-2 for an overview of some of the learning outcomes associated with specific integrative approaches).
- The integration of STEMM content and pedagogies into the curricula of students pursuing the humanities and arts may improve science and technology literacy and can provide new tools and perspectives for artistic and humanistic scholarship and practice.
- The integration of the arts and humanities with medical training is associated with outcomes such as increased empathy, resilience, and teamwork; improved visual diagnostic skills; increased tolerance for ambiguity; and increased interest in communication skills.
- Many faculty have come to recognize the benefits of integrating arts and humanities activities with STEMM fields and offer firsthand testimony to the positive student learning outcomes they observe as associated with integrative curricula.
- Abundant interest and enthusiasm exist for integration within higher education, as evidenced by the groundswell of programs at colleges and universities in various sectors of American higher education (see “Compendium of Programs and Courses That Integrate the Humanities, Arts, and STEMM” at https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24988 for a list of 218 examples that the committee found illustrative).
An important observation was that the kinds of outcomes associated with certain integrative approaches in higher education—including written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings—are the educational outcomes that many employers are asking for today. Employer surveys consistently show that employers are asking for graduates with more than deep technical expertise or familiarity with a particular technology. They are looking for well-rounded individuals with a holistic education who can take on complex problems and understand the needs, desires, and motivations of others. Interestingly, these learning goals and competences are similarly valued by institutions of higher education. A 2016 survey released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that nearly all AAC&U member institutions—which constitute a majority of 4-year colleges and universities in the United States—have adopted a common set of learning outcomes for all their undergraduate students (Hart Research Associates, 2016). Shared learning outcomes included writing and oral communication skills, critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, ethical reasoning skills, and “integration of
Many of the observations and conclusions made of integration at the undergraduate level apply as well to graduate education. In recent years, some have argued that the traditional, disciplinary approach to graduate education may not equip students with the awareness, knowledge, and skills needed to approach, frame, and solve increasingly complicated problems. Preparing the next generation of graduate students to tackle the problems of the twenty-first century may necessitate a shift toward integration in graduate research and education. Though most graduate programs today focus on a single discipline or subdiscipline, interdisciplinary graduate programs have emerged in recent years, and many schools are working to promote greater interdisciplinarity in graduate training and scholarship. Also, established integrative fields, such as science, technology, and society; sustainability; women’s studies; human–computer interaction; bioethics; and many others, offer models of successful integrative graduate-level programs. The committee observed that one important outcome of integrative graduate education is greater institutional capacity to produce future faculty members who are well prepared to provide integrative education.
Given the evidence that is currently available about the potential of integration to produce positive learning outcomes, and based in the consensus opinion of the committee members, we have drawn the following conclusions and recommendations.
SUPPORT FOR INTEGRATIVE APPROACHES
An emerging body of evidence suggests that integration of the arts, humanities, and STEMM fields in higher education is associated with positive learning outcomes that may help students enter the workforce, live enriched lives, and become active and informed members of a modern democracy. While the current evidence base limits our ability to draw causal links between integrative curricula in higher education and student learning and career outcomes, we believe it is important to acknowledge how difficult it is to carry out causal studies on educational interventions and how rarely any curriculum in higher education is evaluated. In light of these realities, and the fact that evaluation will depend on the existence of integrative programs, 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. In short, 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. 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 that integrate the STEMM fields, the arts, and the humanities.
Institutions should work to sustain ongoing integrative efforts that have shown promise, including but not limited to, new integrative models of general education.
New designs for general education should consider incorporating interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, 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.
Institutions interested in supporting integrative curricular models should set aside resources for the hiring, research, teaching activities, and professional development of faculty who are capable of teaching integrative courses or programs.
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 and the evaluation of such efforts. Sustained support will be necessary to understand the long-term impact of integrative approaches.
EVALUATING INTEGRATIVE COURSES AND PROGRAMS
Given the limited, but promising, evidence for positive learning and career outcomes associated with integration in higher education, the committee is urging that a new nationwide effort be undertaken to collect a robust and multifaceted body of evidence that the broader educational community can accept, embrace, and apply to specific settings throughout the huge and complex landscape of American higher education. We recommend the following:
Those interested in fostering disciplinary integration in higher education, including faculty and administrators, should work with scholars of higher education and experts in the humanities, arts, and STEMM fields to establish agreement on the expected learning outcomes of an integrative educational experience and work to design approaches to assessment.
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, and STEMM fields, including qualitative, quantitative, narrative, expert opinion, and portfolio-based evidence. Stakeholders should also consider developing new evaluation methodologies for integrative courses and programs.
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.
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 the class and nonclassroom environment, and working with teaching and learning centers to develop curricula for faculty charged with teaching for or within an integrative experience.
Institutions and employers should collaborate to better understand how graduates who participated in courses and programs that integrate the humanities, arts, and STEMM fields fare in the workplace throughout their careers. We recommend the following four areas for such collaboration:
- 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.
- 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.
ENHANCING INCLUSIVITY THROUGH INTEGRATIVE COURSES AND PROGRAMS
As our committee considered the evidence associated with integrative learning in the arts, humanities, and STEMM fields, we also sought evidence of the benefits of integrative learning to groups of people who have been historically underserved by higher education. Women, people with disabilities, and population groups including African Americans, Latinos, and indigenous people have not participated equitably in some areas of the arts, humanities, and STEMM fields. Any new movement in higher education, we believe, must ensure that it prepares all students to prosper economically, contribute civically, and flourish personally.
Issues of equity and diversity in higher education intersect with the goals of disciplinary integration. One of the goals of disciplinary integration is to make connections between STEMM fields and other disciplines so that STEMM subjects (and hopefully STEMM careers) become more appealing to groups traditionally underrepresented, and at times actively excluded, from STEMM fields. In our analysis of the evidence on the impact of integrative educational programs, the committee found several instances in which the integration of the arts and humanities with STEM was associated with particular benefits for women and underrepresented minorities. Therefore, we recommend the following:
Further research should focus on how integrative educational models can promote the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in specific areas of STEMM fields, the arts, and the humanities, and all research efforts should account for whether the benefits of an integrative approach are realized equitably.
REMOVING THE BARRIERS TO INTEGRATIVE APPROACHES
Certain internal and external pressures are placed on universities that are likely to drive disciplinary segregation and serve as barriers to integration. To facilitate integration and overcome these barriers, we recommend the following:
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.
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.
Professional development of current and future faculty is needed to promote integrated learning, given the additional complexity of pedagogy in integrated courses and programs, and research on effective pedagogical practices for integrated learning should be expanded.
TOWARD A MORE INTEGRATED FUTURE
The fragmentation of knowledge and learning was a historical process, and the future can depart from that past. Given that today’s challenges and opportunities are at once technical and human, addressing them calls for the full range of human knowledge and creativity. Future professionals and citizens need to see when specialized approaches are valuable and when they are limiting, find synergies at the intersections between diverse fields, create and communicate novel solutions, and empathize with the experiences of others. The committee views the integration of the arts, humanities, and STEMM fields in higher education as a promising avenue to help create this future.