Humanities as a compliment to STEM; Failure as necessary for student growth

Edelstein writes that “[to] innovate is thus less to abandon the past than it is to tinker, transform, and revise what came before” (2010). He describes the continuum of innovation and provides discipline-specific examples. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of battery technology, something that has been around since Mesopotamia ( and which has experienced both incremental and exponential advances during different periods.  There may be more opportunity for innovation at the interface of two or more disciplines, of which one could have been on the static end of the continuum, rather than thinking of everything in its silo.

Edelstein (2010) provides examples of the value of humanities from the perspective of different disciplines that raise varied aspects of innovation:

  1. Entrepreneurship and an ability to consider ways to improve a current product, process, or situation.
  2. Engineering and medical students incorporating art to round out curriculum and ensure students can think creatively and make more connections back to the core material.

In practice the former example seems to significantly overlap with a research method or systems analysis process.

The National Research Council developed a framework that outlines practices that will aide STEM student acquisition of concepts:

NRC framework

Edelstein (2010) later acknowledges that the “cognitive processes” that underly both the humanities and STEM disciplines are similar. This seems to belie his earlier point.

The latter example hits on something more inherently-missing in traditional STEM fields – a framework for communicating out important concepts.

Melissa Marshall of TED “Talk Nerdy to Me” fame, coveys the importance of this:


Her talk helps scientists and engineers present their work for maximum impact and understanding. I haven’t seen her talk in about five years, but I remember this slide because the medical concept is given a visual analogy.

Edelstein (2010) oversimplifies the need for understanding and assimilation in the humanities versus STEM coursework, providing examples where As are given in engineering classes where everyone gets one correct answer versus the case in a humanities course where there is no singular correct answer. There are any number of counter examples to this in STEM education, but my favorite historical example gets at concepts from both Godin and Palmer:


Godin (2012) described the “obedience,” and “interchangeable parts,” nature of our educational system. A student who was not inquisitive, whose mind was not engaged, and who wasn’t willing to question the integrity of a building built by a known engineering firm for a publicly traded company might not have caught the design flaw. Coming forward as a student goes against the textbook cases and the standardized tests, it goes against memorization, and it takes gumption. This ties to what Palmer describes as the need to “help our students develop the skill of ‘mining’ their emotions for knowledge” (2007, p. 10). Student intuition can be squelched in the harder sciences, yet as Palmer notes many professions that stem from and interface with these disciplines run on heuristics.

Ultimately, Edelstein makes the case for a shift towards problem-based and other forms of applied learning.

Finally, a pitch for failure: we need to get more comfortable with what failure looks like and means in practice. Godin (2012) challenges us to consider if we “are asking our kids to collect dots or connects dots?” and then argues that we can only do the latter if we “[put] them into situations where they can fail.”

Failure abounds at both trivial and catastrophic levels across industries, some of which is expected and some of which is nearly unimaginable. The architect-engineers of the Citicorp and Hancock ( towers got it wrong. The percentage of startups that succeed is a shockingly low 10% ( In its report on a recent Massachusetts gas pipeline explosion, the National Transportation Safety Board found that field documents and sensors were were missing critical information leading to the death of one (

Failure, similarly to Godin’s (2012) observation on the lack of cooperative work in school, is one of the most overlooked aspects of our educational system. Students need to learn how to fail on individual problems, as contributors on teams (or as Palmer (2007) describes it “group inquiry”), and as part of institutions. If students are allowed to learn from their failures, they will be have more confidence and self-efficacy and be better advocates for change.



It’s time for institutions to Design/Test/Iterate/Deliver/ Change

Multiple of the aspects of what Dr. Jhangiani discussed go beyond the walls of an institution:

  • Access to digital technology and the digital divide

…and to ideas that run counter to the value proposition of institutions:

  • A time-tested curriculum and faculty
  • Learning on one campus

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The three bullets above are interrelated, but students, professors, parents, and administrators have complex interests that only partially overlap.

Students experience the burden of a textbook (or 3, 4, or 5 textbooks) differently, but we know that some students may struggle to afford a textbook.

We’ve learned that one aspect of a learner-centered syllabus is having student input on the content.

Some professors want to explore new methods, but feel constrained by their institutions. Some parents would not be thrilled to learn that their child “was the guinea pig” in Fall 2018 Intro to Biology. Some administrators are concerned about whether the accreditation for a program will continue if professors are constantly testing new methods and content.

Professors at campuses that are part of consortia (think the Colleges of the Fenway) can leverage (and re-use/re-mix) the resources of the others if they can get buy-in from their administrations, but this can quickly become a bureaucratic albatross around innovation and efficiency.


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It’s time to try new things. We read about the harm that grading may do, then almost everyone still plans to provide traditional grades. We know that we can democratize the information in our classrooms, then we say it’s too hard to not go with the standard textbook. We are not wedded to anything beyond a semester, and maybe not even that long. Let’s try something closer to software design and engineering: design, test, iterate…

I would be ecstatic to build a course with a class. I vividly remember my freshman Biospyschology class, and that was many years ago. One of the most memorable features of the class was the unit on how illicit drug use affected the brain. The class voted on the drug we explored in the unit, and cocaine was selected. I still remember how cocaine affects the synapses. It was my first introduction to developing course content collaboratively, and it left an impression.

We have to start introducing a piece of collaborative design, a collaborator from another institution, a new piece of technology, a different form of assessment, and then keep building. Just as we design, test, and iterate in software we also have a backlog of ideas that we put out in two week sprints. We are not just iterating for weeks on end, but building on a foundation, which is continually being built onto.

agile scrum

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It was not raised during the Critical Open Pedagogy podcast, but institutions of higher learning have far reaching effects on the urban fabric of the communities where they exist and expand. They often bring jobs and stability, but can raise prices and wall off portions of communities. When we think about openness, the openness of facilities is also worth taking into account when many of our leading institutions receive local incentives and state and federal funding.

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While it represents a massive shift to address these factors, it could also provide institutions an opportunity to re-frame the value proposition of the university as a community anchor, a talent ignitor, a leveling force, and the type of dynamic place that tests and retests ideas.

Assessment, Motivation, and Learning for 21st Century Problems

Kohn (2011) begins his case against grades with a quote from a student. The quote pertains to a paper written, so I immediately wondered if this is applicable across disciplines and assignment types. Potentially a course of study with diverse assignments could be free of grades, but is that just electives or is it core requirements plus electives? Do the statistics professors feel the same about grades as the art history professors? Should they? Certainly there is also variation in student preferences, learning styles, and feedback needs. Claire may feel like the grade diminished her personal growth, but I don’t think that holds for all students.

Connecting Kohn (2011) to Pink (2009, 2010) and Lombardi (2008), one can see that assessments and motivation are tied together. This is less about the preferences of a student, and more about whether coursework and grading are preparing students for twenty-first century problems and a work world that requires interdisciplinary thinking and team work. Lombardi’s comparison of tradition and authentic assessments dovetails nicely with the ideas that Pink discusses. According to Lombardi, traditional assessments “[encourage] memorization”, for instance, and “targets simplistic skills” (2008). This can be likened to the MIT/Federal Reserve Bank study on motivation. Authentic assessments, by contrast, “[encourage] divergent thinking and “[prepare] students for ambiguities]” (Lombardi, 2008).

Applying the concepts raised in Lombardi’s (2008) paper with those raised in Pink’s TED talks (2009, 2010), the work world is also consumed by traditional assessments – or the analogy would be that workplaces focus on extrinsic motivators (substitute grades for monetary bonuses). Behavioral economists over the last decade would suggest that these bonuses are less useful for cognitive performance than the three legged stool of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Going back to the questions raised in the first paragraph, it is conceivable that a self-directed course of study would be possible. This could be more akin to a ROWE model, or to a Google 20% model. Maybe it would vary by the discipline, but not necessarily. If students want to master the concepts from their coursework, can a more self-directed plan of study help with this? Is mastery even possible? I think of the inventors who toiled away for hundreds or thousands of hours to create or learn something to the point of having a command over it, which can’t be expected for students in a 16-week course. If however students plans of study reflected a four-year period, there might be ways to provide interim assessments while also looking more at the totality of work over time. Lastly, there is the concept of purpose. I recently came upon the story of a student who went into Business as an undergraduate because he needed to be able to support his family, even though his passion was social work. An external purpose could be as motivating as an internal purpose from becoming a nurse or civil engineer designing public infrastructure. Ultimately supporting students in finding meaning and purpose is essential to their continued success.

What Pink (2009, 2010) and Lombardi (2008) both touch on is the role of motivation and assessment in the right brain, problem-based nature of issues in the twenty-first century. Students can memorize theory and equations, but if a student can’t apply them outside of the classroom when a problem has multiple solutions, when solutions have different tradeoffs, and when multiple interests (landowners, governments, non-profit organizations, tribal entities, etc.) then the memorization mattered for at most sixteen weeks. Secondly, problems post college are often solved by interdisciplinary teams where listening, learning from one another, and negotiation skills are required. A more self-directed, multi-scale, and purpose-driven course of study seems more likely to teach these skills than would a more traditional program.

Lastly, taking a different view here for a moment, it seems that inherent in a method that deviates from grades is additional contact time with students for different types of assessments (input) and information sharing (output). If more time and resources – or different types of resources – are utilized in this framework, does that mean that less students will be admitted or that college will become even more unaffordable as the supply-demand calculus changes? It seems that we may be able to create a better, more informative, educational proposition, but I worry that we could do so at the expense of maintaining – and expanding – a diverse student body. Diversity, as McKinsey has argued, is also part work success (

Is networked learning additive & required to experience? How can risks associated with it be managed?

Campbell’s idea that networked learning is an essential part of experiential learning is alluring in the way that new ideas can be at first, before they are viewed under closer inspection. I wonder if he would publish this article today? If so, would he change anything? I read Campbell’s ideas through the lens of everything happening today – against the “truth isn’t truth” landscape. This backdrop involves a portion of the population that is weak in the digital literacy domain, which fundamentally undermines public discourse and governance. On the face, connected learning might help address this issue, but it also has the potential to worsen the divide.

From a background in public health, the concept of networked learning is both exciting and worrisome. On the positive side, learning the use of web-based tools for research and learning is important to being a professional that can find appropriate sources in digital published environments, connect to new ideas in a digestible format on Twitter, and locate contacts within the field for collaboration. On the flipside, learning using digital sources requires boundaries and methods to correct inaccuracies. Many years ago I completed an environmental health survey of programs for girl’s health. The internet is filled with programs that are evidenced based, robust, rigorous, efficient, and efficacious, but the dark side is that there are also programs that are none of these things and are based on outmoded ideas not fit for health interventions. Students and future professionals need to understand how to deal with information that falls into these different buckets, and especially for what to do with information that resides in a more gray area.

I also read Campbell from the perspective of a woman, which can be associated with negative experiences in networked spaces. How do we use networked learning safely balanced with teaching curiosity and empathy? When Campbell discusses how students can become alienated from their learning, does he not think connected learning could be alienating? How will information overload be addressed in this paradigm? There is research from VT faculty on this issue, which is one potential cause for concern with Campbell’s proposal if left un-considered.

Network learning makes sense as part of experiential learning for certain courses of study (media, communications, computer science), and future occupations (public affairs, software development), but I don’t agree that it’s necessary or beneficial for everyone. I would be greatly interested to see a study on the benefits of networked learning, traditional co-op, and blended options for a large student population to see if networked learning significantly added to the co-op model, or was even better than the co-op model for specific indicators of success.

I am more aligned with Campbell’s analysis of Kuh’s stances and the broader feelings within the field at that time: pragmatic, concerned with the applicability of education to the individual’s long-term success, and larger talent attraction and retention needs. The best way for many to learn is experiential, but the reason that many pursue higher education is associated with future earnings and stability.

At a time when students are taking on record debt to pursue education, the question of the value of the final degree is essential to one’s economic wellbeing. Millennials are buying houses at lower rates due to debt from school. This has long-term impacts on municipalities, regions, and the economy of the nation.