The Liberal Art of Science


In 1990, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published “The Liberal Art of
Science” (LAS), a report from the Study Group of the AAAS Project on Liberal Education and the Sciences ( The Study Group was formed in response to the 1986 Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy report, “A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century.” LAS begins: Science influences every aspect of contemporary American life, yet the United States has been described as a nation of scientific illiterates. The appraisal of leaders in government, education, and the private sector is that the welfare of the nation and the individual will be improved when all citizens have sufficient understanding of science to make soundly based personal, civic, and professional decisions. This national goal can be achieved only through the radical reform of science education at all levels. Of critical concern is education in the natural sciences at the undergraduate level. The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action addresses this concern. In the LAS report, “science” included all of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines. In a 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, “Branches from the Same Tree,” the authors broadened this vision of STEM to include Medicine (STEMM).

Despite many creative improvements in the last 30+ years in how science is taught, the above statement, unfortunately, still rings true today. The United States faces a “war on science (Otto, 2016)” on several fronts with scientific illiteracy permeating public policy and politics. We believe the time is right for a new call to action, a new perspective on science for all citizens, and a new plan for ensuring that the greatest number of students in our science courses receives the best science education possible. The sometimes irrational and irresponsible responses from segments of the general public and certain leaders of our country point to the necessity of a general public that possesses the ability to make personal and civic decisions based on sound scientific evidence.

As noted in the 1990 LAS, “science pervades all aspects of human existence,” describing the kind of knowledge and skills that will enable those in the college-educated population to meet science-related challenges of the 21st Century. Undergraduate STEMM faculty members shape college students’ comprehension of and attitudes toward science. These faculty members also help educate future civic leaders and teachers who promote the understanding of and enthusiasm for science among high school graduates. Because science is pervasive, the 1990 LAS expressed a goal of science literacy that also helps students develop a sense of social responsibility. Unfortunately, many Americans, even those who are otherwise well educated, have limited understanding of science or how it affects their daily lives. Nor do they all possess the analytical and problem-solving skills to act effectively on scientific matters that they encounter in their personal, professional, or civic experiences. Science must be taught in a manner that emphasizes a practical education that helps people develop habits of mind capable of dealing with the complexities of the real world. Education must be more than the transmission of factual information: it must provide students with knowledge and skills that enable them to educate themselves about and deal with today’s scientific, environmental, health, and technological issues. According to LAS, “science” is the art of interrogating nature—that is, it is a system of inquiry that is predicated on a set of values and that requires mastery of systematic problem-solving techniques, the power of reason, the art of abstraction, and the ability to address science-related societal problems. Teaching the STEMM disciplines as a liberal art means helping students to be well informed about science, to gain science-related reasoning and analytical skills, and to possess the inclination and ability to apply the knowledge and skills within their community.

In 2018, James Collins (Arizona State University) and Gordon Uno (University of Oklahoma) were funded by the National Science Foundation to revise and update the 1990 LAS. Most of that funding was earmarked for a workshop where people could collaboratively work to outline the project, write sections of the new report, and identify exemplary projects around the country that epitomize a civic-minded vision of the liberal arts and sciences. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic made it impossible for a face-to-face meeting to happen, although work on the new LAS continued. Part of that work was the development of a series of essays by scientists and science education experts that could help frame major sections of the revised LAS. While the revision process of the LAS continues, we believe it is important for the science and science education communities to have an opportunity to read and benefit from these interesting and diverse essays related to science and the liberal arts. Thus, with the cooperation of SENCER’s leadership, we offer these as a preview of the new LAS document. We strongly believe that the SENCER community understands the aforementioned issues, has been addressing them for years, and can help promote the radical change in the broader American science education landscape recommended by the original LAS. Other essays are forthcoming, but we welcome suggestions for additional essays and topics for the new LAS. Please contact Gordon Uno at or James Collins at ( for information about the revision of the Liberal Art of Science or for comments and suggestions. The current essayists are (but check back for more!):

The Origins of the Liberal Art of Science, Dr. Shirley Malcom, Senior Advisor to the CEO and Director of the SEA Change initiative at the AAAS

Rethinking Equity Within the Liberal Arts Tradition of Science Pedagogy, Dr. Bryan Dewsbury, Associate Professor of Biology at Florida International University; Associate Director of the STEM Transformation Institute

Leadership Matters: What Leaders Can Do to Advance the Liberal Art of Science, Dr. Susan L. Elrod, Chancellor, Indiana University, South Bend

Reintegrating Science and the Liberal Arts, Dr. Noah Finkelstein, Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado; co-Director Center for STEM Learning; Co-Director of the national Network of STEM Education Centers

Small Liberal Arts Colleges Should Export their Values and Practices, Dr. Jose Herrera, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Northern Iowa

STEM Education as a Liberal Art: Back to the Future? Jay Labov, Senior Advisor for Education and Communication, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Retired)

Towards Metacognitive Equity, Dr. Saundra Y. McGuire, Director Emerita, Center for Academic Success; Former Assistant Vice Chancellor & Professor Emerita of Chemistry at the Louisiana State University

Introductory Courses, Intellectual Breadth, and the Liberal Art of Science, Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, and Education at the University of Michigan; Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

The Role of Science in a 21st Century Liberal Education: Reimagining the Future, Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)