Interdisciplinary Programs Improve STEM and Shape America’s Future

In recent years, STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—has become synonymous with the future, employability, and success. In 2018, the federal government adopted a five-year education strategy to make the U.S. a global leader in innovation by focusing on STEM literacy, innovation, and employment. But new research suggests that other skills may be just as important.

“I’m going to make a prediction,” businessman and Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban told AOL in 2017. “In 10 years, a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree.”

With artificial intelligence, Cuban reasoned, programmers will soon program themselves out of jobs. At that time, people who program computers may not be as valuable as those with ideas for how to use computers and the data they generate.

Cuban may be onto something.

In a 2016 IBM Institute for Business Value Global Skills Survey, employers from around the world named STEM capability and basic computer software/application the two most critical skills for the workforce. But in IBM’s 2018 survey, employers named willingness to be flexible, agility, adaptability to change, time management, and the ability to prioritize above STEM and computer science capabilities.

That’s because business is changing. This month, the IBM Institute for Business Value released a new report finding that 120 million workers around the globe will need to be retrained in the next three years as a result of AI and intelligent automation in the workplace. As the job market evolves, employers are looking for employees who will change with it.

Educators should also listen up. If we hope to position students for success in the workplace, STEM education alone is not enough. In light of employer needs, educators should consider pursuing programs that combine technical training with opportunities to develop the “soft skills” employers value most.

Tucked away in sunny Claremont, California, Harvey Mudd College offers some insight into how education can effectively prepare students for a changing workforce. The tiny school, boasting fewer than 890 undergraduate students, has earned a reputation as one of the top STEM schools in the nation. According to U.S. News and World Report, the College is ranked #2 in Undergraduate Engineering Programs, with top five rankings in civil, computer, electrical, and mechanical engineering programs individually. But the school has an unusual approach. In addition to requiring rigorous core STEM classes, the school requires a quarter of student coursework to be in the humanities, social sciences, and arts.

“Students can take classes in Chinese Language and culture, Shakespeare, macroeconomics, jazz improvisation, neuropsychology, photography,” the school explains, “Why do we do this? Because we believe technology divorced from humanity is worse than no technology at all.”

More than that, Kaitlin, a 2016 graduate, argues that the liberal arts approach at Harvey Mudd encourages students to think—not just to memorize formulas or equations, but to truly challenge them to grow in their understanding of the world and why and how it works.

Harvey Mudd also encourages students to put their learning into practice through clinics, where junior and senior students work in groups of 4-5 to complete projects for real companies such as SpaceX, Apple, and Google. Students spend 1,200-1,500 work hours learning about a company’s vision, developing a proposal to address a challenge the company presents, executing the project, and reporting back. The program culminates in a final presentation before the company as well as the many other companies with whom other teams have worked.

“When you’re working on a project from start to finish then you actually deliver it to a company,” said Dalton Varney, a 2018 Harvey Mudd graduate and clinic participant, “I think you learn so much more about product development and you learn so much more about what it’s actually like to be in the field.”

These hands-on clinics give students the opportunity to refine both their understanding of STEM subjects, as well as the skills they need to solve challenges, work with a team, and report to an employer—the very skills IBM’s studies suggests that employers seek. 

Perhaps it’s no surprise that with this unique combination of rigorous STEM training, critical thinking, and interpersonal skill development, employers prize Harvey Mudd students. In 2019, The Princeton Review ranked Mudd #1 for career placement, with alumni median starting salaries reaching $85,600 per year and rising to $157,400 mid-career.

Unfortunately, many schools are moving in the opposite direction. Across the country, colleges and universities are closing budget gaps by cutting the very interdisciplinary classes and faculty that contribute to Harvey Mudd’s success. If the U.S. is serious about becoming a global leader in innovation, more schools should consider the skills employers value and, like Harvey Mudd, incorporate programs that meet those needs.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman