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Mellon Foundation Supports Major Initiative at Olin College to Better Integrate STEM Education with Arts and Humanities

$900,000 to support new model of “artist-in-reference,” an “Arts + Action” student fellowship and an immersive faculty professional development experience

Integrating the arts and humanities within a STEM education is the goal of a $900,000 grant to Olin College of Engineering from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Olin’s faculty team – led by Principal Investigator Assistant Professor of Design Sara Hendren, together with Co-Principal Investigators Professor of Design and Mechanical Engineering Benjamin Linder and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Education Jonathan Stolk – seeks to broaden the experience and perspective of educators and learners by providing a series of intensive engagements aimed at deep integration of arts, humanities and STEM fields.  

“Young people today demand and deserve to imagine the practice of engineering and other technical disciplines as connected, vivacious civic practices, where technological advances are developed in the full context of society and culture,” says Hendren. “Deep engagement with the arts and humanities is vital for young engineers to understand that their work enters not just a marketplace, but into the histories, politics and aesthetics of people's lives.”

“Olin’s experimental approach to the integration of STEM, arts and humanities education will create a more expansive curricular and pedagogical vision for the advocates of technical and liberal education and provide engineering students with the intellectual tools to sustain lifelong learning and inspire civic participation,” said Eugene Tobin, senior program officer in Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities program at the Mellon Foundation.

Traditionally, many technical programs emphasize the “how” — techniques and principles of mathematics or coding for example — but not necessarily the “why.” STEM learning presented without context can lead to students losing their sense of who they are designing with and why.

"Educating the whole engineer — one who creates with sensitivity, perspective and responsibility — necessarily entails expanding technical communities of practice to include socialization through arts and humanities," says Co-Principal Investigator Linder. "If young engineers are to ultimately tip the balance of societal outcomes towards equity and sustainability, then the means of engineering practice must make room for consideration of its ends."

As a researcher of the connections among student motivation, pedagogy and learning outcomes, Co-Principal Investigator Stolk believes that the grant will “shed light on the important role disciplinary integration plays in sparking intrinsic drive and supporting critical thinking, creativity, pro-social behavior and personal well-being.”  Within technical fields, Stolk hopes the Mellon project will “encourage a positive shift in how educators approach motivation in STEM learning, away from situating societal context as a landing spot for new technologies, and toward a more holistic and critical consideration of the relationships among artifacts, cultures and impacts.”

Olin College of Engineering was founded on the premise that engineers must design with people not just for the sake of technology. Designing solutions with people and society calls for a deliberate and nuanced understanding of technology’s impact now and in the future. While Olin arts, humanities and STEM faculty have created some exemplary classroom experiences integrating liberal and technical learning, the Mellon Foundation’s grant will facilitate the development of new contexts and collaborative encounters that integrate arts, humanities and technical learning on an unprecedented level within undergraduate curricula. Spanning four years, the grant will include:

  • The recruitment of a “Creative‐in‐Reference” where an outside practitioner in the arts collaborates in residence on campus every year for three academic years. The term “reference” is being used to reflect the interactive nature of the position where visiting artists are expected to collaborate with engineering faculty and students. As one example, students might work with an opera singer to model and visualize sound waves produced in performance.
  • Arts + Action Fellowships will be offered to four Olin students every summer for three summers. They will have the chance to participate in summer internships with arts organizations or non‐profits dedicated to the humanities, with a particular eye on equity‐ minded organizations, as well as those organizations that have an overlapping interest in STEM-related activities. An example might be a K-12 summer arts program exploring robotics and theater.
  • Faculty master classes each of three summers will enable 10 to 16 arts and humanities faculty from other institutions to engage with STEM faculty in collaborative design of new curricula. The master classes, which will be integrated into Olin’s summer faculty development workshops, are expected to spark the creation of bold integrated course concepts that faculty teams implement in a diverse range of institutional settings.

As part of the grant funding, the investigators will work with their colleagues and students to document the process with videos and blog-style essays, serving both as an exercise in the art of storytelling, writing and videography, and as a means to share the findings with educators.

The Mellon Foundation chose to support this ambitious experiment because the engineering college has a record of pedagogical innovation. Olin’s current success is in part due to its interdisciplinary and design-thinking approaches, which originated in its founding when partner students (the “users” of the education) helped to co-develop the first curriculum with faculty. Its small size (350 students), no academic departments, and culture of risk-taking and student engagement make it a powerful laboratory for educational redesign. In addition, Olin’s mission to openly share its findings with others has led to more than 2,000 visits from educators from across the world looking for inspiration and collaboration to make change in their own programs.