Museums, STEM, and the Vital Role of Humanities

1This week, Brandy Schillace (public engagement fellow at Dittrick and editor of MedHum Fiction | Daily Dose) posted about the intersections of STEM and humanities at museums. STEM has become something of a buzz word in education, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as the driving force for curricula. And these are, of course, brilliant things to aim for–a way of bringing forward those aspects of education that support industry and the economy, innovation, and change. Except, as many educators are quick to point out, STEM misses one very key component: the humanities. What about art and literature, anthropology, sociology, history and etc.? We share this post below–and hope you enjoy it!


The Huffington Post ran a story last year, citing recent studies that found humanities degrees in decline. Arizona State ran their own posting, reminding us that STEM should not (and cannot) replace humanities, but must work in concert. And as recent as January, the Telegraph quotes Keith Budge as remarking “Too readily schools become obsessed by such easy polarities as sciences ‘good’ and humanities ‘wishy-washy'”–it cannot be a binary, and it is not a black and white issue.

Then again.

The Greater Cleveland Area is home to some of the finest medical institutions in the nation, and yet the US Department of Health and Human Services still identifies many communities in Cuyahoga County as critically under-served. And statistically, that under-served population is made up of minority communities rendered invisible by segregated urban centers. Alexander Kent & Thomas C. Frohlich wrote an article earlier this year about the nine most segregated cities in America. Cincinnati and Cleveland both made the list, and:

With more than 55% of its population living in homogeneous zip codes, the Cleveland metro area is the most segregated urban area in the country. [The 9 Most Segregated Cities…]

Income disparity also exists in these segregated areas; In 2013, “20.2% of black Cleveland residents were unemployed, the highest rate among large metro areas and nearly four times the white unemployment rate of 5.4%.” [more here] But what, you might ask, does that have to do with STEM or with museums? More than you might suppose. As we address, collectively, the pressing issue of community health and wellness, one thing becomes clear—for needs to be met, the under-served  must feel empowered to make their own health choices via the dissemination of key and critical information. And yet, the barriers to medical care are more than physical; medicine needs to be “re-humanized” to combat the sense of alienation most people feel as well as to educate them about their rights and choices. Museums (and libraries), very often from within these same urban centers, offer an alternative education program–an invitation to take part, to learn, to enjoy, and most importantly, to be part of a community.

As an example of how this might work, I offer How Medicine Became Modern. The Dittrick Medical History Museum (where I serve as public engagement fellow) embarked on this exhibit over a year ago–a digital interactive that teaches through touch. By beginning with our history and allowing visitors to discover the connections between yesterday and today, these interactive displays will: 1) encourage the public to engage with history so as to see their role as stake-holders in their own health; 2) focus on the human stories at the center of innovations, encouraging medical-humanities approaches among health practitioners; and 3) reveal the embedded ethics of health innovation, issues of access, and who among the community have been under-served or overlooked.

The digital platform, in many ways, honors the dynamics of STEM. Math, engineering, programming, cutting edge technology–but all of it wrapped about story, the humanities kernel that gives the whole project meaning. How Medicine Became Modern further provides for two public engagement initiatives: Conversations and Exchanges. Conversations, or dialogues with the community, bring medical history beyond the walls of the Dittrick Museum by partnering with area institutions like the Cleveland Public Library, Global Center for Health Innovation (GCHI), and museums like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, so as to reach new audiences. Free to the public, these 15-minute, TED-style presentations address such topical and current themes/issues and their historical antecedents as pregnancy and birth, vaccinations, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Audience members then participate in round-table discussions following the panel. These events have proven incredibly popular with the public as demand and growing waiting lists have resulted in raising the maximum attendees from 35 to 45 participants, with the most recent bringing in over 60 participants.

I’ve worked with at-risk communities throughout my career. I’ve been especially involved in SMDEP, a program for at-risk students who want to enter the field of medicine. One theme I encounter frequently concerns the “right to belong.” These under-served groups tend not to be the ones most often encouraged by STEM. Some feel alienated. Unwanted. Some may be afraid even to approach the idea–medical school or the sciences, or college itself, is for “other people.” Museums and libraries have the opportunity to use humanities (narrative, history, anthropology) to reach out and to show how others have engaged… how health is everyone’s business…how the community is best served by those from inside it, working together. It may be a science museum… but every museum uses the humanities to reach the human.

Back to Keith Budge, headmaster, Bedales School, UK: the issue isn’t STEM vs. humanities. The issue is how do we best combine these practices? How do we use humanities to support STEM, and the reverse? And how to we, as museums, as libraries, as cultural institutions, become centers of our communities–making connections, bridging gaps, and leading the way?

Because that is our future.

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