Stem Education as a Liberal Art: Back to the Future?

by Jay Labov

I suppose that I may assume that all who are much interested in securing for the sciences the place that belongs to them in education feel a certain amount of disappointment at the results hitherto attained…Considering the opportunities, students have not flocked to the study of science in the numbers predicted, nor has science modified the spirit and purport of all education in a degree commensurate with the claims made for it. The causes for this result are many and complex. I make no pretense of doing more than singling out what seems to me one influential cause, the remedy for which most lies with scientific men themselves. I mean that science has been taught too much as an accumulation of ready-made material with which students are to be made familiar, not enough as a method of thinking, an attitude of mind, after the pattern of which mental habits are to be transformed. (p. 121)
Thus we come around again to the primary contention of the paper: that science teaching has suffered because science has been so frequently presented just as so much ready-made knowledge, so much subject-matter of fact and law, rather than as the effective method of inquiry into any subject-matter. (p. 124)  
John Dewey, Science as subject-matter and as method (1910)

The leaders of this project to rework the Liberal Art of Science for the 21st century asked me to write this essay about the future of STEM education because of my 18 years of experience as a professor in biology coupled with administrative duties at a small liberal arts college and my 23 years of having worked on the improvement of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education as a staff member at the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. My thinking has “evolved” over those 40+ years, both radically and incrementally, as a result of my experiences in teaching many courses in biology at the introductory and advanced undergraduate levels, my exposure to the emerging education research on reforming STEM education only after leaving my tenured faculty position, and my interactions with the scholars who have undertaken that body of work.

In this brief essay I relate several experiences while teaching that shaped both my thinking and my career trajectory to improve STEM in higher education. These experiences coupled with my subsequent work at the National Academies have convinced me that the widespread distribution and adoption of the principles in The Liberal Art of Science are essential for the future of undergraduate STEM education.

Four experiences as a Professor that have left a lifetime impression:

  1. While team teaching an introductory biology course for majors, a colleague presented a general lecture about cellular metabolism; details would be added in the subsequent course. All three members of the team attended every class. Following this presentation, a first-year student advisee came up to me and demanded to speak with me in my office immediately. After we arrived at my office the student told me how upset and insulted she was with the lecture just given. When I asked for additional details, the student responded that in high school she had taken Advanced Placement Biology and was expected to memorize every reaction of cellular respiration (Krebs Cycle = KC, the anaerobic and aerobic biological reactions that allow for the release and storage of chemical energy from food sources). The student was aghast that the professor giving this class didn’t discuss any of these reactions. She posited that she had received a higher quality education in high school and wondered aloud whether science education at this College was of any value. I then asked the student to explain why she was breathing 10-12 times per minute while speaking with me. She immediately became annoyed at my question, thinking I had not listened to her complaint. In fact, the question I asked was directly related to the final reaction of aerobic respiration, where oxygen gas in the body is used to complete the process. As I continued to ask her questions, I realized that this student had no idea why she breathed let alone any connection between that basic physiological process and the biochemical reactions going on within each cell of her body. I thought about asking her why she was going to lunch shortly (food provides the raw materials that drive the KC), but decided not to do so.
  2. After much discussion over a prolonged period of time, faculty members in the biology department decided to change graduation requirements for majors by introducing area requirements. Each student was then required to complete at least one course with a lab in cellular/molecular biology, organismal biology, and population biology/ecology/evolution. After these changes were announced, a sophomore student advisee became upset and demanded to know why these changes had been instituted. The student told me about an internship the previous summer at a large research university sequencing DNA and planned to pursue a Ph.D. using the same techniques. Of what value would courses in organismal and population biology be, especially if those requirements prevented the student from taking additional courses in cellular/molecular biology, the student demanded to know?
  3. I was teaching “Topics in Neurobiology,” a course for junior and senior biology majors along with advanced science students from other disciplines (e.g., physics and psychology). At one point in the semester, we were considering two different theories of the neurobiological bases for hearing in vertebrate animals and I presented the evidence supporting one theory over the other, especially in mammals. As the class ended, I indicated that we would move to another topic for the next class. I then went to my mailbox and picked up the newest issue of Science In that issue was a paper presenting a great deal of evidence that the other theory may be especially applicable to other kinds of vertebrates such as frogs. At the beginning of the next class, I told the students that I had changed my mind about moving to another topic because I wanted to revisit the previous class’s discussion based on this new evidence. Upon hearing this, many students in the class opened their notebooks and either ripped out the notes from the previous class or scribbled over them. I decided on the spot that this was a teachable moment/learning opportunity and told my students we would spend the rest of the session exploring how science works.
  4. I served as the elected Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences at my college. One of the benefits of holding this position was the opportunity to engage deeply in conversations with my counterparts from the Divisions of Social Sciences and Humanities about a multitude of institutional issues. Two conversations still register after more than 30 years:The first concerned the issue of grade inflation and the lower grades assigned by science faculty members compared with those in other divisions. A colleague claimed that it was easier to grade students in science because, unlike other disciplines, there is always a right answer in science and thus responses to multiple choice or true/false questions would suffice for assigning grades.The second focused on having the Division Chairs examine and comment on proposals for new majors before they were submitted to the College’s Education Policy Committee for approval. At the time, Women’s Studies was a concentration at the College and a proposal was put forth to make this a major within the Humanities. As I examined the courses that would be required, I saw that there were no proposed requirements for any courses in biology. When I pointed out what I saw as a glaring omission to the Humanities Department Chair, that person’s response was “What does biology have to do with Women’s Studies?” (I taught several courses at the introductory and more advanced levels where the biology of women was an important set of topics).

Based on my subsequent work at the National Academies, I realized that these personal anecdotes epitomize challenges in STEM education that are still prevalent. These personal anecdotes also point to larger issues in STEM education that that were recognized more than 100 years ago by Dewey (1910) and that continue to persist today. My concern is that mitigating them may become increasingly a task pushed to the future given the current upheavals in higher education. These include:

  • Too many students being both forced and reinforced throughout their academic careers to recognize and accept that science is a body of discrete facts to be memorized (example 1), replicated on examinations, and hopefully remembered (a colleague once told me that we present science in introductory courses through a firehose and hope that students are still damp 6 months later). Too often this emphasis prevents students from making connections between a given body of content with other subject areas in the same discipline, let alone in other disciplines.
  • The increasing specialization of science experts at earlier stages of their educational careers. This emphasis on mastering discrete domains of knowledge also undermines attempts to help students make connections across subject domains and appreciate why it is important to do so (example 2). I suggested to the student in example 2 that being so narrowly prepared, even with a Ph.D., would include training to be a highly proficient technical expert. I also pointed out that being narrowly trained might limit the breadth and originality of questions to be pursued by that line of research.
  • The politicization and undermining of acceptance of science during the COVID pandemic has revealed in stark terms the lack of scientific literacy by many people, including college-educated leaders. Scientific literacy in this case goes well beyond knowing basic facts about the living and physical universes. It also must include an understanding and appreciation about the processes, nature, structure, and limits of science. Courses for non-science majors may address such issues. But, too often, STEM faculty members assume that STEM students already have an appreciation for the workings of science, as I did until my upper-level neurobiology students dramatically demonstrated that they also view scientific information, once taught, as established and unchanging (example 3). Rather than appreciating that “Science isn’t a tall stack of hard facts; it’s a difficult and deeply human process that lurches toward an approximation of the truth” (Auerbach, 2014); science is indeed a vital and integral component of the liberal arts.
  • As also noted by other essayists, in 2018 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a study and published “The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree.” The latter part of the title is taken from a quote by Einstein as he characterized the taxonomy of human knowledge (Skorton, 2019). While many scientists and engineers lack deep education in the other branches of the tree to better appreciate the connections, the same can be said for many educators and others who identify with those other branches about their understanding and appreciation of the need for STEM education for everyone (example 4).Most students who have graduated from college, regardless of their majors, are required to take at least one course in the natural sciences. Few students outside of the sciences enroll in more than the required number of science courses. Thus, for the vast majority of students, introductory science courses are actually terminal courses. As a community we need to rethink and re-imagine what the purposes of introductory courses should be. Should they focus on helping students learn content that is likely to change increasingly rapidly? Or should they emphasize how scientists claim to know something, the human side of scientific discovery, the importance of various types of control, how to ask scientifically valid questions and assess information, and what constitutes evidence? Should such emphases be primarily for students who have decided not to pursue careers in STEM, or should all students grapple with such issues given that science students may have few opportunities to engage with such topics in courses designed for majors? And, if we decide that all students need to delve deeply into such topics, should we continue to have separate introductory courses for STEM majors and non-majors? Few disciplines outside of STEM separately track prospective majors and non-majors.

The President of my college used to tell graduates and the parents of entering first year students that the kind of integrated education that this liberal arts institution provides would not help students as much in procuring their first jobs, but would be exceedingly valuable as they seek their second and subsequent positions. This notion is directly contrary to the increasingly common perspective that a college education should allow students to obtain a high paying first position after graduation and that the STEM disciplines are an important avenue toward achieving that initial success.

As a community, we have to undertake some deep self-examination of what the purpose of higher education should be. In a world where rapid change, complexity, and upheaval are increasingly frequent, an emphasis on the connections across disciplines, diverse peoples and cultures, and learning how to learn are more critical than ever. Viewing science in the lens of the liberal arts, coupled with professional development for all educators in the science of learning, could fundamentally change the ways that teaching and learning occur in higher education to the benefit of students, institutions of higher education, and society more broadly.


Auerbach, J. 2014. BICEP2 experiment’s big-bang controversy highlights challenges for modern science. Washington Post, July 23. Page A1

Dewey, J. 1910: Science as subject-matter and as method. Science 31(787): 121-127. Science as Subject-Matter and as Method

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree.

Skorton, D. 2019. Branches from the same tree: The case for integration in higher education. PNAS 116(6): 1865–186. Branches from the same tree: The case for integration in higher education | PNAS

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