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Town hall focuses on integrating arts, humanities and STEMM

By Sydney Hawkins

Ann Arbor town hall

Arts integration. What does it mean in an academic setting? How can the University of Michigan remove barriers to cross collaboration on campus and do it well?

How might the university implement strategies that help create, evaluate and sustain courses and programs that intentionally integrate the arts and humanities into science, technology, math engineering and medicine?

More than 100 U-M students, staff and faculty members from various schools and colleges, came together May 28 to discuss answers to these questions, and to examine the specific opportunities and challenges of arts integration on campus.

Ann Arbor town hall

Tom Rudin, director of NASEM’s Board on Higher Education and Workforce (right), and Maryrose Flanigan, executive director of a2ru kicked off the town hall. Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.

The event at the Michigan League — organized by the U-M’s ArtsEngine and the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, in partnership with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — was one of similar gatherings that a2ru and NASEM have hosted on campuses across the country in recent months.

“Consider some of the emerging challenges we face in today’s society: poverty, substance abuse, mobility, ” Rebecca Cunningham, associate vice president for research — health sciences, said in her opening remarks. “These are all complex issues, and we cannot address them strictly through the single lenses of engineering, medicine or the humanities. Integration helps us foster new research and develop creative solutions to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”

The town hall comes one year after NASEM released a detailed, evidence-based report to describe the impact of integrative approaches to teaching and learning in higher education on students’ academic performance and career readiness, which was discussed at length by Tom Rudin, director of NASEM’s Board on Higher Education and Workforce.

“Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin once told me that every year they interview nearly 10,000 engineers for jobs, and every one of them had a 4.0 in their college career. So they knew the science and they knew the math, but what they are really looking for were people who are innovative, creative, good team players, good organizers, good at thinking outside of the box and at pushing the envelope,” he said.

The report showed a range of positive student outcomes, including “improved written and oral communication skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in the real world.” It also supports interdisciplinary integration as a method to improve and enrich students’ success in their workplace, in society and in their lives.

The town hall also included two panels. The first, “Addressing Academic Silos,” was moderated by Earl Lewis, director of the LSA Center for Social Solutions. Panelists included Jane Prophet, associate dean for research, creative work, and strategic initiatives at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design; Aileen Huang-Saad, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; and Ron Eglash, professor of art and design, and information.

They discussed a need to develop an institutional understanding around arts integration, for finding spaces that promote it, and for redefining the tenure process to include merit for such projects.

“To bring about institutional change, there are several different things that we need to think about,” said Huang-Saad. “It doesn’t always have to be a new either — we have several, incredible programs that we should prioritize and support for long term sustainability.”

Prophet expressed a need to reverse the “problem-solving” mentality when considering the arts and arts integration.

“Having a goal, having a hypothesis is not always how we work,” said Prophet, who mentioned the lack of available funding for PhD candidates in arts-related disciplines. “What is lacking in the academy is this idea that we’re all here to problem-solve, but what we’re really doing is losing the ability to ‘blue sky’ think. We need support for people to come together without a goal, because that is when transformative things happen.”

A second panel, moderated by Marvin Parnes, interim executive director of a2ru, discussed “Arts Integration at the Intersection of the Academy and the Community.” Panelists included Christina Olsen, director of the U-M Museum of Art; Matthew Van Besien, president of the University Musical Society; and David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Each talked about their role in connecting students and faculty members to resources across campus.

“From the perspective of the museum of art, I believe that we need to create new kinds of physical spaces, and new kinds of positions to help make connections and to facilitate learning across disciplines,” said Olsen, who talked about the museum’s current efforts to align faculty members across the university with resources to suit their course curricula.

“I hope that we view this as a beginning of a process and a dialogue and not as a conclusion,” Parnes said. “I think what we need to do is commit in some way to this process and make sure that we give it the same care and attention as we do other aspects of learning.”