For decades there has been division in higher education between liberal studies and the sciences. Each has value, but students typically spend more time studying one over the other. It is only in recent years that scholars, and professionals, have begun to see the necessity of adding liberal arts courses to a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum. This has created a new acronym STEAM.
Classes in art, communication, writing, and literature offer students a specific skill-set highly valued in the business world. Critical thinking skills, learning how to access one’s creative side, and being able to articulate ideas through oral or written communication, are essential skills to have regardless of industry in which one works. These skills are called soft skills are a collection of interpersonal communication and social expertise, attitudes, and problem solving competence that professionals need to have to be well-rounded and successful. The combination of highly developed soft skills, and technical expertise, makes an employee extremely valuable.
Regina Schreck, M.A., Curator of the Humanities Art Center and Archival Assistant for Kettering University, explains that “oral and written communication skills, along with the ability to think critically and creatively, should be very important to graduating students as many companies value these skills along with a STEM education.” This idea is echoed by business leaders who note that while new graduates entering the workforce may have exceptional technical expertise, they often lack necessary soft skills to be successful in their organizations.
For example, a person who has great technical skill in a STEM area and great ideas will be challenged to succeed if they cannot clearly communicate with the stakeholders in their organization. Moreover, a particular form of communication, persuasion, is an essential skill. Being able to persuade team members and internal and external stakeholders effectively is an imperative skill in the workplace and one often learned outside of technical STEM courses.
Dan Glaser, President and CEO of Marsh & McLennan Companies, an insurance broker firm for middle market companies in the United States, notes that “the liberal arts are a great foundation for aspiring leaders. All sorts of qualities that are requisite for leadership success, including critical thinking, emotional intelligence and communication skills, can be linked to liberal arts subjects.”
Schreck suggests that “by involving STEM students in liberal studies, which focuses on design, organization, communication and creativity, educational systems are bringing them one step closer to obtaining the top skills in their field” and that a “liberal education empowers students to deal with a broader knowledge of the wider world and apply that in real world settings.”
Often, graduates from STEM colleges have jobs in very technical and specific fields. As they hone their technical expertise they may be chosen to take on a managerial or leadership role that includes managing others or teams of others Successful managers and leaders demonstrate mastery of soft skills. They are self-reflective, have good people skills, and a high level of emotional intelligence. All of these competencies are part of a solid liberal arts education.