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Why arts and science are better together



25 June 2013

The arts and science are often thought of as polar opposites. Traditionally, students and universities view them as separate entities - you pick a degree in one or the other and stick to your side of the fence.

Increasingly though, this way of doing things is not enough to prepare students for the data-drenched and volatile workplace of the twenty-first century.

Combining arts and science in the curriculum could be the answer. From science, students learn about sound methods for testing hypotheses, and about interpreting and drawing valid conclusions from data. From arts, they will also learn about developing arguments, and about understanding, moving, and changing the minds of diverse audiences.

There are double and combined degrees already on offer. But there is a great potential for them to be better - improving students' employment prospects and fostering new skills in "the space between" speciality areas.


The untapped potential of combining curricula

In their study into the popularity of double degrees, higher education researchers Wendy Russell, Sara Dolnicar and Marina Ayoub suggested that: "double degree programs have significant untapped potential in preparing graduates for employment."

The potential benefit, they argue, is that graduates develop "transdisciplinary skills" that are highly valued by employers.

Transdisciplinary thinkers take a unique approach to solving problems. They draw information from diverse sources and seek collaborations to produce "socially robust knowledge". However, the way most combined and double degrees are established does not foster transdisciplinary learning.

This is because the combination of degrees tends to create an administrative rather than pedagogical structure. This means that an arts-science student, for example, simply has access to subjects from arts and science faculties. Upon graduation, graduates would be able to perform skills essential to both speciality areas. But they have not necessarily developed transdisciplinary thinking.

The rare double degrees that are pedagogically designed can unlock the potential of a combined curriculum. In such cases, arts-science graduates can also imaginatively develop unique research methods, or ethically interpret information systems, or persuade non-experts to change their behaviour based on scientifically informed debate.


Model degrees, modern times

Universities are increasingly considering different degree structures. The Australian National University (ANU) claims that their new flexible degrees improve graduate employability in a way that "suits your head and your heart". Students complete any two degrees in four years from arts, social sciences, business, or science. The University of Sydney offers a similar option with a four-year Bachelor of Science and Arts.

Such degrees expedite a student's completion. But they are administrative combinations that rarely push students to experiment with approaches and practices from both degrees.

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has attempted to equip graduates by creating a general education program. In introducing their program, UNSW claims: "employers repeatedly point to the complex nature of the modern work environment and advise that they highly value graduates with the skills provided by a broad general education."

UNSW students must complete between two and four subjects from outside their faculty. For example, a science graduate must have completed subjects taught by non-science faculties, such as education, arts, business, built environment, or law.

Such a program appears to be more pedagogically driven than the standard double degree. Students in "GenEd" subjects draw on their existing knowledge to solve problems in unfamiliar disciplinary locations. The learning promoted here is a valuable kind of creative disciplinarity, but it is not transdisciplinary.

We coordinate a new degree at the University of Sydney which has been designed to promote transdisciplinarity. The three-year Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (BLAS) offers students the administrative freedom to study in two faculties while mandating the completion of core units in critical thinking, ethics, and communication.

BLAS students complete a major in arts or science, including up to 12 subjects in their chosen field. A further six to eight subjects are chosen from the other faculty. That is, an arts major must also complete six to eight science subjects. Finally, six liberal studies subjects must also be completed. Here in the physical and intellectual space of liberal studies subjects students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds collaborate to address problems of research, writing and ethics.


An undisciplined world

With improved learning and greater transdisciplinary skills, our experience with BLAS suggests that more innovative curricula and degree programs are needed. Why not have extended math curriculum which includes writing? Or an extended English curriculum which includes trigonometry?

A curriculum can be defined narrowly as the content of a particular class or degree. It can also be defined more broadly as the combined total experiences of a person's lifelong learning.

Unfortunately, administrators and policy advisers often look too narrowly at the curriculum. They develop, for example, a policy for high school English, or a strategy for tertiary math instruction.

An innovative approach to curriculum design would involve experts from various fields. They would collaborate to design a curricula space where students actively connect and extend the diverse aspects of their education.

After all, while few would doubt the value of disciplined thinking, isn't our goal also to prepare students for lifelong learning in an undisciplined world?


This article is part of The Conversation's Maths and Science Education series. Dr Benjamin Miller is a lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Dr Fiona White is an associate professor in the School of Psychology.


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Media enquiries: Rachel Gleeson, 02 9351 4630, 0481 004 782, rachel.gleeson@sydney.edu.au