Skorton stresses arts, STEM intersection

Former UI President David Skorton visits Hancher to talk about STEM and the liberal arts.


By Jenna Larson 

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Secretary of the Smithsonian David Skorton focused on how STEM and the liberal arts nourish each other in a speech on Thursday at Hancher.
“I think in the past, it has been that STEM has been considered something that was separate from the arts,” said Kristine Bullock, Southeast Iowa STEM hub manager. “In recent years, people have really seemed to recognize that people that go into STEM careers and people that we want to go into STEM careers need to have a multidisciplinary background that really fosters creativity.”

The University of Iowa College of Engineering requires students to take art courses.

“I think he’s bringing back a great perspective to the university,” Bullock said.

Now that Skorton, a former UI president, works at the Smithsonian, he brings great perspective through having a traditional science background, she said.

“Going into the Smithsonian system really gives him credibility to have this conversation about how the liberal arts can integrate with STEM beyond just looking at facts and figures that might be in different research reports,” Bullock said.

François Abboud, the UI associate vice president for Research, who worked closely with Skorton during his time at UI, said Skorton’s talk on STEM and the liberal arts will make future physicians caring.

“Without humanity, we would be inhumane physicians, and the simple notion is so important for the education mission of the university to prepare the citizens of the future,” Abboud said. “So the dependence of STEM on the humanities is such an integral part of growing up and becoming a responsible citizen, and he could see that.”

Having spent a professional lifetime working the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine, Skorton said he recognizes and celebrates the extraordinary contribution of science to lives, prosperity, and the promise of the future.

“A life in science has taught me that science will not be enough to solve the world’s thorniest challenges,” he said. “For that, we need the broad and deep value of the liberal arts for two overriding reasons. They hold inherent value as the best way as the best way to understand ourselves, our world, and what it means to be fully human. And they provide practical contributions to solving our most difficult and persistent problems.”

UI faculty are taught that there is great value in integrating education in these seemingly disparate sets of disciplines, Skorton said, and the benefits of the two cultures working together is becoming more widely recognized

“Many people, of course, accept the idea that the arts and humanities can create jobs or complement math and science in practical ways,” he said. “But the arts and the humanities are enormously more than servants to the sciences. They enrich us in profound ways, they are essential to who we are as individuals.”

There is a reason people hang art on walls, listen to live music, visit museums, and watch theater, he said. There is a reason people connect with the famous words of Shakespeare and Maya Angelou.

“The reason is that we learn fundamental truths about ourselves and others from the arts and humanities,” he said. “For as long as we have been able, humans have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history, and languages to understand and interpret [a] confusing world.”

Throughout the academic environments Skorton has been in, there has been a balanced approach and acknowledgment to the benefits of humanity studies.

“I have seen and experienced the benefits of an integrated education, and I have learned in listening to writers, artists, philosophers, and other humanists that we are at risk as a people if we do not acknowledge, and advocate, and work hard to ensure that STEM studies and liberal arts continue to be emphasized as enhancing and nourishing one another,” Skorton said.

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