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Puffing Up STEM With STEAM

University of Montana
photo by Wesley Fryer

Times are tough at my alma mater, the University of Montana. Since reaching a peak of more than 15,000 students in 2011, enrollment has crashed to less than 11,000 for the first time in 25 years.

Meanwhile, about three hours’ drive east on Interstate 90, Montana State University – the former agriculture-oriented state college my generation derided as “Moo U” – has enjoyed 11 straight years of growth. The school reached enrollment of more than 16,000 this year. A lot of those students are relatively high-paying out-of-staters, too. There are 1,800 more nonresident students at MSU today than in 2010.

There are a lot of factors contributing to this difference, but the two schools’ respective brand positioning is likely among the most important. Prospective students, especially in Montana, generally see my old campus in Missoula as the place to study liberal arts. Both the campus and the town are widely seen as a Rocky Mountain island of East and West Coast progressive values, infused with a different political DNA than most of libertarian-conservative Montana.

MSU, on the other hand, is a STEM school. It boasts a well-regarded engineering program with associated aerospace courses. It offers majors in architecture, nursing, business and environmental sciences, some of which UM also offers. And agriculture, of course, which UM doesn’t. (It offers forestry instead.) So it’s still Moo U. But now the cow has turned carnivore, and it is eating my old school’s certified organic, GMO-free lunch.

You don’t need aerospace training, or training in any other form of rocket science, to see a connection between the economic trauma of the Great Recession, the explosion of student debt and the divergent enrollment trends of these two campuses. Similar trends have played out at colleges across the nation. A report from Moody’s Investors Service last year found that private colleges were closing at a rate of around 11 per year. Moody’s projected that the rate will increase to around 15 per year in the near future. Many of those that have foundered are small liberal arts schools, especially in the Northeast. Still more schools have merged with other institutions or eliminated programs to cut costs.

In any part of the country, this is a very tough time for schools to be seen primarily as liberal arts schools, especially if they lack the prestige of the Ivy League and other top-tier universities. It is a much better time to be seen as strong in science, technology, engineering and math.

So what to do? There are a few possible answers. A cynical one would be to puff up whatever STEM credentials you already possess and add an “A” to denote the arts in your existing liberal arts niche. Then you can tout yourself as a STEAM campus.

Does science influence the arts? Of course. Spend any time at all on a film set or in a music studio and you will see the fusion of science and art firsthand. Or take a moment to ponder how creative artists can create completely immersive three-dimensional worlds. Sometimes these worlds exist merely for our entertainment, while sometimes they have more serious applications, such as medical imaging. In both cases, technology offers a modern artist the tools to create.

Should the humanities provide a framework for the application of science? One can only shudder at the thought of a technological world unmoored from civilization’s standards of ethics, values, objectives and priorities. Unbridled science has been the source of many a dystopian fiction, not to mention more than a few real-world controversies. Science can be reduced to formulas; philosophies cannot.

But in situations where the priority is science, Shakespeare will take a back seat – assuming he comes along for the ride at all. That’s just how it is when college study costs tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars, as well as years of forgone potential earnings. On the great majority of campuses, studying Shakespeare costs as much as studying science, but science ultimately pays better. The results should not surprise us.

So I approach schools’ STEAM branding with hefty cynicism. To me, it smacks of an effort to carry floundering humanities programs on the backs of sturdier STEM courses. This is not true in every case, but I suspect it is true in enough cases that I would evaluate a self-proclaimed STEAM school carefully. As any engineer can tell you, steam can cause serious damage when mishandled.

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