But during her time as an academic advisor at Penn State Harrisburg, Catherine Rios saw some students approaching so-called gen ed courses solely as hoops they had to jump through on the way to their real interests: science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM for short.
“They won’t necessarily see the connection of taking that class and their future success in a STEM field,” said Rios, who is associate director of Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Humanities.
Rios hopes the college’s new 1 1 program can help students make those connections.
She created the program with Shivaani Selvaraj, the director of urban engagement at Penn State’s Urban Center in Philadelphia. The program builds on their earlier work to create an interactive game for new students to use with mobile technology and engage with the campus during orientation. The game evolved into a way to write curriculum that makes the value of liberal arts explicit.
For the past two semesters, the initiative has found its way into biology classrooms at Penn State Harrisburg. Upper-level biology students helped design the program, which was added onto a freshman level intro to biology class.
The students, for example, were able to physically learn how cells evolve by following QR codes around the science building with their cell phones. The visual and physical experience helped them better understand cell cycles.
Another instance involved biology students building cell structures out of simple materials, such as zippers, tape and other everyday items, in small groups —strengthening their communication abilities, along with critical thinking skills, design intuition, adaptability and networking skills.
“These are what they call 21st century learning skills,” said Rios.
Rios and her team intend to expand the 1 1 initiative to be program-wide and include it in other majors. Rios said that the program is meant to provide a bridge between creative thinking and scientific thinking at a tangible, concrete level that students can manipulate.
Shriya Kane, a research associate on Rios’ team, was born in India and moved to the United States to begin her college career at Penn State Harrisburg. She had always wanted to be involved in a program that helps STEM students correlate the core concepts in their field to a greater extent.
“As a student from a country that emphasizes memorization over application and understanding, I have seen the drawbacks of conventional methods used to teach STEM subjects,” she commented. “The 1 1 program helped me communicate complex topics to a broader audience effectively. It also opened up a platform for creative thinking and collaboration, two things that I believe are crucial to STEM research and education.”
For her part, Rios hopes the world of higher education will move towards offering programs with a greater focus on intersecting skillsets — ones that span many different types of degrees.
“There are different ways of understanding the world, so it would be unlucky to have us heavily weighted in any particular area,” she said. “It’s much more healthy to have a diverse array of majors.”
Editor’s note: The writer is a student at Penn State Harrisburg.