Thursday, March 12, 2015

Steve Kelley - How are the Humanities integral to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)?

Steve Kelley is a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is an advocate for STEM and humanities education. Governor Dayton appointed him to the board of the Minnesota Humanities Center on which he served from 2011 through 2015.

Since the best relationships are mutual, the question posed this month could be “How are STEM subjects and the humanities integral to each other?” Let me count the ways.

Christine Kenneally’s recent The Invisible History of the Human Race describes how the science of DNA combined with historical research reveals new insights into the past, including the confirmation that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ children. Another DNA project created a map of the genetic similarities among residents of England, showing how groupings and migrations (for example, the Picts and the Saxon invasion) that date back hundreds of years are still visible. The genetic map would be pretty pointless without history and archaeology to tell the rest of the story.

At Intel, Genevieve Bell is the resident cultural anthropologist. She leads social scientists and designers who study user experiences. She explores the culture for clues to our technological future. In a 2014 Stanford video (from the New York Times story Intel’s Sharp-Eyed Social Scientist), she describes how she alerted Intel engineers that Apple’s Siri technology might be the beginning of a shift from human-computer interaction to human-computer relationships because Siri, however imperfectly, listens to us. Bell represents just one way that the humanities are integral to engineering.

Too many in higher education still treat the humanities and STEM as separate and unintegrated, but bright spots exist. Professor Camille George had to integrate her skills in mechanical engineering with an understanding of the culture of Haiti to develop methods that add value to breadfruit. Her project is one example of peace engineering, blending engineering and practical anthropology for the common good. Another project put sociologists in the field with engineers to enable farmers in Mali to grow their own seed potatoes rather than import them from Europe.

We could do a better job of integrating learning in K-12 education, too. Here is one opportunity for the Minnesota Humanities Center. The Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted in some states emphasize science and engineering as practices in which people engage, rather than merely bodies of knowledge. The Standards encourage students to understand concepts that cross the boundaries between science and engineering as a way of integrating those practices. In middle school, physical science essential practices include developing and using models, analyzing and interpreting data, and constructing explanations and designing solutions. Cross-cutting concepts include patterns, cause and effect, structure, and function.

What if we taught history this way? Certainly historical facts, dates, and theories are important, but, might we better prepare young people to integrate STEM and the humanities if it was taught that science and engineering and history and literature are concerned with patterns, with cause and effect, and with structure and function? The practice of history, just like the practice of science, involves constructing models of change, analyzing and interpreting data, and constructing explanations. If we could figure out how to teach our children to see that STEM and the humanities are integrated, perhaps we adults could see that truth more clearly too.


  1. Picts and Saxons, Siri, breadfruit in Haiti and potatoes in Mali, middle school and "we adults"--Steve Kelley's characteristic ranging through wide-angle to telephoto perspectives on the world was a rich gift to the Minnesota Humanities Center while he was on the Board, and through this blogpost he continues to inspire and challenge us. "Patterns, cause and effect, structure and function" are indeed dimensions of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--and these dimensions all come into play in wonderfully mixed ways when people actually do the disciplines. The key to Steve's insight is the observation that teachers, learners, inventors, scholars--indeed, everybody just living their lives--are practicing. I'm reminded of what the golf legend Gary Player said: "The more I practice the luckier I get."

  2. Beautifully reflected Patrick. I appreciated the ties between genetic mapping and historical narrative. Our organic ties to our indigenous history and the science to back it up!