Engaging STEM Students Through a Liberal Arts Lens

Institutions of higher education vary in academic focus. Students often have to choose where to attend a college or university based off of academic interests that will lead to their future careers.

In today’s higher education, I often witness/hear/read about discussions that pit STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and liberal arts education against each other. Students will pursue whichever education they choose for a number of reasons (reasons that I cannot cover in this post because there are just so many!). With that being said, this post will primarily focus on the culture of STEM-based institutions from the lens of someone who has attended a liberal arts institution.

I currently work at a STEM-based institution and work closely with STEM undergraduate students. I attended a liberal arts institution as a college student and I majored in English. For me, working at an institution that is vividly centered on science, technology, and engineering, in particular, has been a great culture shock. While my current role is not the first time I’ve worked with students from STEM disciplines, being in an environment that is solely focused on STEM education has provided me a new experience.

So let’s talk about characteristics of students at STEM institutions and the culture of STEM-based institutions. I realize some of these statements are generalized and some statements may be very particular to observations grounded in my own experiences.

STEM Student Characteristics

With students who have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Instrument (MBTI), you might find that a significant population have the Introverted (I) and Thinking (T) as their type preferences. Students with “I” are more about the inner process, reflection, and the focus on depth. They prefer communication in writing. Students with “T” are definitely those who are analyze all situations, utilize objective lenses, and make decisions based on reason and being fair. The “I” and “T” preferences definitely play a large role in the way that students engage with each other and the campus community.

Student engagement at STEM-based institutions will utilize some form of technology. The good thing about student affairs professionals stepping their technology competency game up is that at STEM-based institutions, the use of technology and diverse social media platforms is absolutely valued. Students utilize websites like Reddit to have cross-campus conversations, and also would be more likely to use social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat for programming initiatives.

Students at STEM-based institutions are primarily focused on their academics and their future professions. This is probably common knowledge for many people but I was surprised when I started my current role. I estimate that 97% of the interactions that I have with students include updates on classes, quizzes, research, or interviews. In reference to the points made above, it is important that everything that STEM students do, such as research projects and co-curricular activities, connects to their academic and professional development.

In recognizing these characteristics of STEM students, I consider my work with them to be favorable and helpful to their college experiences. I realize that the environment created by both STEM institutions and STEM students raises some challenging areas as well.

A major example centers on the matter of the intelligence quotient (IQ) and the emotional quotient, also known as emotional intelligence (EQ). I truly believe that most of the STEM students are some of the most intelligent people on the planet with great potential to make the world a better place with their ideas and their creations. However, they have spent most of their lifetime developing their technical skills that their “soft skills” are not as developed. “Soft skills” could include working in teams and being a team player, effective communication, conflict resolution, giving and receiving feedback, just to name a few.

Areas where we can helps STEM students develop include:

Writing skills. Some of the students that I have engaged with so far have actually told me that they are happy to not have too many writing courses. STEM departments across campuses continually go back and forth about the necessity of writing classes needed for the degrees of STEM students. At STEM-based institutions, the dilemma is magnified, particularly for students who have a laser-like focus on their STEM discipline, writing courses seem to get in the way.

Social and cultural awareness/competencies. In an argument similar to the dilemma with having writing classes as part of the curriculum for STEM students, classes and programming around social and cultural issues are also not high priority in the topics they’re exposed to. It’s important to acknowledge that STEM-based institutions are predominantly populated by those with privileged identities in our society (e.g. white, male, able-bodied). Much of the conversations and education that are needed are more likely to be received by students if designed as foundational and relevant to STEM academics and work within the STEM industry.

Applying Your Lens

A STEM education can be as well rounded as a liberal arts education is perceived to be. Faculty and staff at STEM institutions have the greatest opportunity to impact students in ways not only limited to the classroom and the research labs.

Here are some suggestions on how to engage STEM students:

  • Moving from STEM to STEAM. Humanities and liberal arts education is crucial to the success of students whether they engage via core courses or if they have a major housed in the college. In the recent years, institutions have updated their curriculums to offer students more courses outside of non-STEM disciplines. In the near future, STEM-based institutions will be producing professionals with interdisciplinary experiences that will contribute to the growth of STEM industry. With many STEM companies recognizing the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, it is about time that higher education jumps on board.
  • Utilizing an engagement platform. If you are going to push students to be more involved, you have make the push to market to students where they spend their most time: mobile devices. Presence is a student engagement platform that helps organize events, manage logistics of programs with forms and waivers, and track student attendance at events, making for a seamless student engagement experience. With STEM students being primarily committed to their academics, having an engagement platform will help STEM students find involvement opportunities that fit into their schedules and address their interests.
  • Providing opportunities for students to develop leadership skills. STEM students need to learn the importance of working in teams, managing conflict, making decisions, giving presentations, and developing visions, goals and outcomes. This can be done through creating a leadership development series, providing workshops or seminars on the topics. Other long-term suggestions would be to institutionalize leadership education; designing and teaching credited/non-credited courses, creating a leadership minor or a certificate in leadership. Leadership can be taught, and for our STEM students, their leadership development journeys will greatly impact their future success in their careers.
  • Popping the campus bubble and connecting students to the real world. It is imperative that STEM-based institutions are educating students on the connections between their disciplines and the local, national, and global societies that they are a part of. Social issues are relevant as long as educators can help students in figuring out their roles and places in society. For example, STEM students can begin to learn about their working environments and some of their systemic structures that are in place that still have women, people of color, and people with disabilities labeled as underrepresented in those spaces. The same could also be true for STEM-based institutions. Reach their curiosities through offering electives about diversity and global impact, raising support of multicultural professional organizations, and inviting outside speakers in STEM academia or industry to talk about these issues.

Your Thoughts!

There is a place for liberal arts education and associated practices at STEM-based institutions. The work that student affairs professionals and faculty do can have much impact on changing the educational experience for STEM students. If we want students to be instrumental to the impact that they will have on the future of STEM, we must begin to approach STEM education in new and non-traditional ways.

What are ways you use a liberal-arts lens at your STEM institution?

What are some up and coming ways to enhance engagement with STEM students?

We would love to hear from you! Tweet us at @THEKaryndyer or @mc_sapro with suggested practices, services, or programming approaches! Thank you for reading!

Karyn Dyer

About the author: Karyn Dyer (she/her or they/them) is a student affairs professional, poet and social justice advocate. Learn how we can help get your students involved.