Kimberly Kendricks was a math professor when the Air Force put out a call for help. They were looking for people who could model gait and bone structure to root out suspects in attacks like bombings and to help predict such threats.
Kendricks, who was then at Central State University outside Dayton, Ohio, had done graduate work in solving kinematic problems for assembly-line robots. Robotic movement is similar to human movement, so she submitted her proposal and got the Air Force’s attention. But the problem was bigger than the math of motion. Soon, Kendricks found herself working in a team alongside kinesiologists, physicists, biomechanical engineers, and computer scientists.
“That was my first exposure to interdisciplinary work and understanding group dynamics and the importance of valuing other people’s disciplines,” she said. “I was very good at working in teams and building teams. And so that’s guided the work I’ve done since.”
Now in her fourth year as UNLV’s director for interdisciplinary collaboratives, Kendricks is drawing on those experiences to steer UNLV through a landscape where education increasingly cuts across departmental lines. Her work is part of the Faculty Excellence Initiative, aimed at creating a positive organizational environment.
From STEM to STEAM
Judith Ramaley, a biologist who was then the assistant director of education at the National Science Foundation, is credited with coining the acronym STEM for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in 2001.
With students in the United States lagging behind international counterparts in those fields — and with the jobs available in them plentiful, prestigious, and high paying — STEM came to be a dominating force in education. By 2009, President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative, generating a $700 million investment aimed at improving all areas of STEM education, from attracting new teachers to diversifying the student base.
That national attention naturally affected state policies. For example, the Nevada System of Higher Education adopted a funding formula in 2012 that weighs students in science, technology, and engineering course clusters heavier than those in the liberal arts, business, education, and others.
To a large extent, that’s simply because lab equipment in science and engineering is significantly more expensive than the spaces needed for humanities fields. But part of it does come down to a public interest in diversifying the state’s economy. The formula offers a bonus based in part on an institution’s ability to turn out “economic development” graduates.
There was debate, of course, about the value of pushing STEM education both in Nevada and nationally. Concerns ranged from the ability of STEM fields to attract and retain a diverse population to broader concerns about the actual value of an education that skewed too left-brain. About four years ago, a growing chorus for STEAM — adding “arts” to the equation — gained its voice. And the STEM acronym morphed from there with programs adding an “R” for “wRiting” or extra “M” for medicine. The mission creep, in many ways, could be seen to come back to a well-rounded, liberal arts education.
So is STEM still the future? Shake up the Magic 8-Ball and you might see “Reply hazy, try again.”
“There is no question that STEM fields have been enormously influential in producing an educated citizenry and workforce,” said Nancy Uscher, dean of the College of Fine Arts. But, the music professor adds, “the fascinating development more recently has been seeing our thought communities — our National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — become keenly aware of the importance of the integration of the humanities and the arts with the sciences.”
Uscher points to one venerated discipline — architecture — as a field that has long joined art, engineering, and math. The UNLV School of Architecture recently added another field into that mix with its healthcare interior design program. And over in the music department, oboist Stephen Caplan is leading a new consortium focused on health and injury prevention. Think: sports medicine for artists and performers.
Interdisciplinary, with a Las Vegas Twist
A decade ago, UNLV launched one of its showiest new programs. The entertainment engineering and design (EED) program — the first such degree in the country — brings together disciplines already intertwined in the fabric of Las Vegas.
Production shows up and down the Strip have long tapped students from all sorts of majors, so UNLV had one eye on ensuring its academics keep pace with the industry. The other is on taking Las Vegas’ native expertise in showmanship and exporting it to the world, as professors tackle the technological challenges of, say, programming drones to perform in aerial spectacles.
Some EED students come from engineering and learn the arts side of the equation, but most come with a strong interest in performing arts and then delve into materials, robotics, animatronics, and other feats of engineering.
The approach yields graduates who tackle problems from a variety of perspectives — a conceptual good that yields practical results, said Michael Genova, a professor in the College of Fine Arts. He runs the program along with Engineering Dean Rama Venkat as a joint venture between the colleges.
“Once you introduce some art classes to teach a different set of skills, your brain works in a different way,” Genova said. “In general, the study of arts leads to an understanding of nuance. So as students start to go through the EED program, I don’t want to say that they’re better than traditional engineers, but I think that they observe differently, they pick out slight differences in data.”
The projects coming out of the program are wide-ranging. One involved 3-D printing and work with lasers to redesign the kinetic sculptures of Dutch artist Theo Jansen. One involved designing fire egress systems that lit up exit paths in case of emergency. One was an animatronic Harry Potter sorting hat.
Some projects may seem fanciful, but they’re also grounded in research. At the next International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, entertainment engineer professor SJ Kim’s student team will present its work to create an augmented reality theater on the waters of the Bellagio fountains.
The program has hit its stride now that its graduates are building their reputations at the likes of Pixar Studios and Cirque du Soleil. In 2015, alumna Shelby Honea reached an industry pinnacle when she landed an internship, and eventually a job, with Walt Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm for the company’s theme parks. She is now a producer for Universal Creative.
“Recruitment for this fall was phenomenal,” Genova said, expecting the program’s largest class ever. “We now have a track record. The companies hiring our graduates are seeing the benefits of our approach. And the grads themselves have gotten to a point in their careers where they are influencing hiring decisions.”
Teaching students the fundamentals and giving them hands-on experience in the realities of entertainment production is one thing. But the practicalities don’t end with the tangible skills and job marketability.
The Economics of Interdisciplinary
There’s a more prosaic reason that faculty are incentivized to work across disciplines: money. Follow the grants, and you’ll see the shift, Kendricks said.
As STEM emerged, organizations like the National Science Foundation focused grants on priming the pipeline for scientists with STEM programs in elementary and middle school.
“Funding agencies recognize that their initial approach was not as effective as they foresaw,” she said. “But after 20 to 30 years, they realized just incremental progress. So now there’s been this shift to integrate it into other disciplines.”
Indeed, the National Science Foundation states explicitly on its website that “Important research ideas often transcend the scope of a single discipline or program ... Thus, NSF gives high priority to promoting interdisciplinary research and supports it through a number of specific solicitations.”
More interdisciplinary research is also seen as a boon to UNLV’s quest for status as a Top Tier research institution. But when she first arrived in 2014, Kendricks found a university that was greatly siloed. There was some natural collaboration, but she saw departments that often weren’t talking to each other — or talking with a common language. And some just didn’t see the value in working with colleagues outside their fields.
To succeed on an interdisciplinary team, Kendricks said, “you have to be willing to let the other disciplines shine.”
That’s something Mary Croughan, vice president for research and economic development, is trying to spotlight. This year she revived the dormant Faculty Opportunity Awards, but added a twist — research projects would have to be interdisciplinary with two principal investigators teaming up from two different UNLV colleges or schools.
The award winners included some clever pairings. In Fine Arts and Hospitality, professors Kimberly James and Timothy Self teamed up for “Objective Measurement of Vocal Fatigue in the Hospitality Industry.” In Urban Affairs and Community Health Sciences, Seong Park and Jay Shen won funding with “Displace or Diffuse? The Effect of Medical and Recreational Marijuana Legalization on Opioid Abuse and Other Substance-Related Crimes.”
The awards themselves are seed grants, aimed at helping faculty obtain critical preliminary data in promising new avenues of research so they can apply for bigger federal dollars. “The federal agencies have been emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary teams for a long time. They’re basically forcing people to create these types of teams, and for good reason: It gets people to think more broadly and to answer research questions from multiple perspectives.”
Nonetheless, the STEM focus won’t be left behind any time soon.
Psychology professor Rachael Robnett sees STEM fields in the light they were initially regarded — as both a path to bountiful, high-paying jobs for students and as filling a crucial role in the national workforce.
Robnett studies diversity in STEM, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining women and girls to the bench sciences. She helps identify interventions universities can make to help keep women and minorities involved before they drop out of those majors. There’s still much work to be done to plug STEM’s “leaky pipeline,” as it’s called.
“There just aren’t enough qualified Americans to fill necessary roles,” Robnett said. “There is a lot of concern about needing to pull science workers from other countries. In some ways that’s good; that brings more diversity to the U.S. But it’s also important to keep in mind that there are lots of women and people of color in the U.S. who have the capacity and desire to succeed in STEM, yet they aren’t pursuing these careers because of inequities in the education system and in society more generally.”
We still need scientists, she said, and STEM still needs nurturing.
The final arbiter of the direction that education takes won’t be whatever vacancies happen to be in the workforce at large. It will be what best prepares students to be productive thinkers for whatever fields they choose.
For Croughan, the interdisciplinary approach “is certainly to your benefit when you’re the student. When you are exposed to that breadth of thinking, you come out practicing your field differently and seeking out colleagues who have differing opinions.
“I think of it as the difference between a soloist and a choir singing. A soloist might be fabulous, but it’s just one tone, one style. A choir can go a million directions.”