STEM and Liberal Arts: Frienemies of the State

When I was getting ready for college, I knew I was going to pursue a degree in some area of science; I never even considered a liberal arts degree.  To be honest, I did my best to not take any liberal arts courses I didn’t need to.  Even studying abroad in Australia satisfied my “foreign culture” credit so I didn’t need to study another language.  I did take Spanish in Grad school knowing I was going to be working and living in Latin America for 2 years.  Otherwise, these classes were at odds with my science and I didn’t want to waste my time on something I wasn’t going to use.  I had no idea how they could be used in the future or how they can fit so well together.

Even though the interdependence between the liberal arts and sciences has recently become a focus in those areas, there seems to be a political battle going on which is supporting STEM education over the liberal arts.  As much as we admire the arts (music, painting, reading, design, journalism) STEM education has been getting a lot of attention.  Much of this disparity in support can be seen in government funding.

What’s up with funding the liberal arts?

North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory made a statement on the radio back in January saying “I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs…” referring to liberal arts courses, such as gender studies. “…if you want to take gender studies, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.”  (audio: minutes 5:25 – 6:25).  There’s a lot more in this interview, but this was still said.  How likely is it that liberal arts areas, such as gender studies, played a key role in advancing women in the STEM fields?

These comments obviously caused quite a stir among liberal arts teachers and professors throughout the state, maybe even more so because of the then-potential sequestration.  Opinions abound throughout the internet on blogs and news outlets about how important the arts are in education, and I’ll get to that in a few moments.  But what about the numbers?  How much money goes towards STEM education?

When planning the 2013 federal budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) put together a summary of STEM education called “Preparing the 21st Century Workforce”, which includes a 3-year history of federal STEM education funding.  FY2013 calls for $2.951 billion in spending across multiple departments including Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, and NASA towards STEM education.  The others are included in the list below, and the patterns in this table are interesting in themselves.  Specifically how each department decides to use that money for education varies.  Among their methods probably includes lesson plans for teachers, internships, outreach events and online content.  I am sure there is much more, too.

Table from "Preparing the 21st Century Workforce"
Table from “Preparing the 21st Century Workforce”

Unfortunately there is no document that summarizes a federal plan for supporting arts education.  If you find one, let me know and I can insert that in here later.  The White House website does, in fact, have a page dedicated to Champions of Change in Arts Education, along with the many other CoC categories.  However, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that The National Endowment for the Arts received only about $155 Million for FY2011, and a decrease to $135 Million for 2012.  The caveat here is that this is for the arts, not art education.

With these numbers, what kind of signal is being given on the national scale, if not just North Carolina?



I don’t think there is any doubt that we need people trained in arts and humanities to improve our lives.  Artists and designers add flavor to our society by adding color and edges to things that would otherwise be bland.  Writers and journalists bring the world news to us and allow us to escape from our lives for a few moments and visit a new world.

But how does a liberal arts education fit in with STEM?  A great summary of this synergy is found in The Chronicle: Higher Education, in a commentary by Boston College professors Mary Crane and Thomas Chiles.
“Science matters at a liberal-arts university because the problems facing our global community will not be solved by scientists alone.”  “…while an issue as complex as global climate change needs scientists to identify its root causes, it also needs faculty members in the humanities and social sciences to evaluate its impact on human populations and societies, and journalists to communicate this information to the wider public.”
If you believe that research is done only for the sake of discovery and not sharing knowledge, then maybe the liberal arts do not matter.  But knowledge and discovery should be shared; science is not the answer to the world’s problems, but it does provide us with information to make informed value-based decisions.
Mercedes Benz's advertisement beautifully combines STEM and the arts.
Mercedes Benz’s advertisements beautifully combines STEM and the arts.

Working in museum education I have discovered another important role the arts play in STEM education; with all the types of people in the world, and all their various interests, art is another way for the non-scientific public to access science.  STEM-to-STEAM provides some other examples of where art allows students to enter science through non-traditional methods, including Sesame Street and Reading is Fundamental.

The liberal arts has two main roles in STEM education and producing a more scientifically literate public; one as a way for people to access the sciences, and two as a way to communicate the sciences.

Fellow PLOS blogger Johanna Kieniewicz has some great arts and science posts on the subject, as well, in her blog At the Interface: Where art and science meet, specifically Why scientists should care about art.  Some people are inherently interested in the numbers, experiments and results; some connect to science by having a personal interaction with a scientist.  Others see the art in science, or how science is art.

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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