Full STEAM Ahead: How The Humanities Are Changing In The STEM Era

Apr 23, 2019

Enrollment in science and technology programs is skyrocketing at Truckee Meadows Community College and the University of Nevada, Reno. But, as KUNR’s Paolo Zialcita reports, humanities programs are struggling to thrive and must adapt to the new educational environment.

TMCC nursing student Myranda Thom is working in a biology lab, assisting students who are studying what’s called endobacteria in soil samples. Before enrolling as a biology major, she had big dreams of moving to New York and singing on Broadway. 

“That wasn’t the life for me. I wanted to be able to get a job that paid decently somewhere that I liked living, like Reno,” Thom said. “And, so, I decided on nursing because no matter where I decide to live, there’ll be jobs in nursing.”

Myranda Thom in her biology lab at TMCC.
Credit Paolo Zialcita

For Thom, it was the impracticality of it all that got to her. She found comfort in the job stability and constant demand for nurses. 

Following the 2008 recession, higher education has seen a massive increase in national enrollment in STEM programs and broad stagnation in the humanities.

Laura Briggs is the biology department chair at TMCC. At the college, the number of students getting an associate of science degree grew 250% over the past decade; meanwhile, the number of students obtaining their associate of arts has decreased by nearly 70%.

In Briggs' department, student enrollment in her department has grown more than 200% since 2007. 

Briggs says that students flock to STEM programs because of the clear path to a career.

“There's a definite job. Everybody understands what a nurse is, but not everybody understands what a philosopher is. And, so, those kinds of degrees then aren't anywhere near as specific,” Briggs said.

Some people disagree with this sentiment, including Debra Moddelmog, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UNR. 

"Philosophers, for example, over their lifetime, make just as much as some of the other engineering fields,” said Moddelmog.

UNR's College of Liberal Arts houses departments like English, Theater, and Basque Studies, and its enrollment has shrunk about 4% since 2008, which is on par with what’s happening nationally.

Meanwhile, UNR’s health, engineering and science departments have all grown over one hundred percent, also following national trends.

Moddelmog says her program is attempting to stay relevant by adding art to STEM, or what has been coined as STEAM, which can have some surprising outcomes.

"For example, we have biological anthropology. They look at bones and teeth and, you know, make judgments about ancient history, as well as maybe crimes that have happened and how did a person die or who was this person who died?” Moddelmog said. “We are just as much affected by the changes in our world with science, technology, engineering and math as other people are.”

Moddelmog says that the humanities and STEM are meant to go hand-in-hand, for a well-rounded workforce.

Along with the discussion that is happening in higher ed, some early educators are already going full STEAM ahead in order to prepare students for a more integrated curriculum.

Every month, about a hundred educators across the Reno-Tahoe region gather at the Nevada Museum of Art, where they’re guided through an art exhibit before holding a discussion about the intersection of art and science.

Skye Snyder, an art teacher at McQueen High School, started incorporating the lessons she learned at these events in her classroom. For one assignment, she tasks her students with visually representing an environmental issue.

“First, you have to identify the problem. You know, what is the environmental problem, which is a science issue, right? And, then, of course, they are creatively approaching how to visually represent this problem after doing lots of research about the problem to begin with, so they should be creating really complex and critical work,” Snyder said.

Marisa Cooper is the senior director of education at the museum and helps organize these events. She says that combining the arts and sciences makes sense.

“When we can blend those two things together, they become more meaningful, they become more exciting and students, as a result of being exposed to that, become more creative and more innovative, which is what we want for the future of Nevada,” Cooper said.

Marisa Cooper uses Nevada's Fly Geyser as an example of the the intersection of art and science.
Credit Paolo Zialcita / KUNR Public Radio

What’s happening right now in the region is a manifestation of STEAM itself. For decades now, the area has built part of its identity around art and culture through Burning Man, which is internationally recognized, and Reno’s month-long festival Artown. And now, tech giants like Tesla and Google are here, adding another layer to the region’s identity.

For further insight into the enrollment trends at TMCC, look at this dataset, courtesy of TMCC. For further insight into UNR’s enrollment trends, look at this dataset, based on information provided by UNR that has been synthesized by Paolo Zialcita.

As a note of disclosure, the license to this station is owned by the Nevada System of Higher Education.