With centuries of history, the College of William and Mary is well known for producing scholars, government officials and even a few revolutionaries.
Now, that liberal arts legacy is shifting to accommodate national trends toward science- and technology-related fields.
Each summer, the Board of Visitors updates a six-year financial plan that projects the costs and revenues associated with the school’s priorities. When former Provost Michael Halleran reflected on some of the school’s changes in the past six years at an April Board of Visitors meeting, he noted what’s often referred to as the “STEM trend.”
“There’s been a slight shift which reflects a national trend: more students interested in STEM areas. But one of the remarkable things about William and Mary and I think it’s one of our strengths, is that we haven’t become basically a vocational institution,” he said at the meeting. “We have a lot of students getting serious, strong education in history, anthropology, sociology. … We do a lot of STEM, we do it really well, but we haven’t abandoned the other parts of what we do.”
STEM education refers to skills developed in science- and technology-related fields. But in the higher education landscape, STEM lines are blurred.
It’s often defined as an interdisciplinary approach to learning, where science and technology are applied and connected to the real world, according to the National Science Teachers Association.
“The whole STEM concept has generated a certain amount of discussion throughout higher education,” Joseph McClain, the school’s director of research communications, wrote in an email. “I was talking with an economist who noted that his discipline is not classified as STEM, despite generating papers as full of equations as any STEM discipline.”
A new way of learning
The school introduced College Curriculum, or COLL, a new general education curriculum, five years ago. Halleran created the foundation for what would become a faculty-driven process to advance the curriculum to emphasize thought, research and global understanding.
In the curriculum, students are taught to apply shifting lenses of STEM and humanities studies to their disciplines — for example, science courses that include classes with anthropology and culture. The point isn’t to make a student a master of just one subject but instead make them sharp all-around.
“We can agree on some of the core disciplines (of STEM): physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, so on and so on. But there are other areas that aren’t usually considered to be within this group but do pretty STEM-y things,” McClain said. “In fact, the whole world is becoming affected by computational ability. And that is part of what we’re talking about when we have this conversation about ‘what’s STEM?’ Long story short, STEM is only of limited usefulness as a term.”
A shift from the liberal arts
It’s easy to look at the basic evolution of science, technology, engineering and math programs and degrees at William and Mary.
Most of the bachelor programs at the school — such as anthropology, economics, political science and sociology — are still categorized under the liberal arts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But in the past six years, William and Mary has developed an engineering physics and applied design track as part of the physics major.
Students can also get a degree in data science. Currently a design-your-own major, it is pending approval from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to be listed as a major.
The school also added interdisciplinary programs in computational and applied mathematics and statistics, and another in neuroscience.
But the addition of majors, minors and programs isn’t the best way to understand how the STEM trend is seen at the school.
STEM is a term that’s vague around the edges, McClain said.
Kristen Wustholz is a chemist at William and Mary and a fellow at the Center for the Liberal Arts. CLA was developed to ensure COLL’s success — to help faculty come up with new ideas that cross disciplines and inspire students to think in a more interdisciplinary way.
For example, Wustholz teaches a chemistry course on the science of dyes, but the content of the course goes beyond science.
“It reaches out to the social sciences and to the humanities to talk about art and textile dyeing and cultural anthropology,” she said. “So that’s where they sort of get a foundation of all the liberal arts disciplines, STEM included.”
Wustholz said STEM and liberal arts educations are hard to describe as separate.
“As a scientist, I see my work as being parallel to that of somebody in the humanities or the social sciences. It’s kind of nebulous,” she said. “Yes, I’m trained as a mathematically rigorous discipline, as a chemist, but I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive to think about these other disciplines.”
William and Mary’s Department of Psychology recently approved a name change to psychological sciences to more accurately recognize the scientific nature of the work that goes on in the department.
Provost Peggy Agouris, who joined the school in July, has a multidisciplinary background and comes from George Mason University where she served as the dean of the College of Science. She’s also an award-winning scholar and researcher and was also the director of the Center for Earth Observing and Space Research.
She said she hopes to integrate the degrees offered at William and Mary with multiple perspectives.
“As a person coming from a STEM area, I can tell you that STEM without liberal arts and humanities and holistic education is not enough to prepare people for jobs, because technology evolves very quickly,” Agouris said. “I view the two hand-in-hand.”
John Littel, who serves as rector of the Board of Visitors, said a lot of the work that needs to be done in academics at the College relates to the value of a liberal arts education in today’s world.
“The jobs that our graduates are going to go into, many of them haven’t even been developed yet,” Littel said. “How do we take the things that we do really well in liberal arts — how do we teach people to think critically, how do we teach them to communicate effectively in today’s world — and then marry that with things like data analysis. I think that’s been a big push.”
SaraRose Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org, 757-243-3685, @SaraRoseMartin.