To some detriment, mainstream education at multiple levels is still often segregated into different discipline areas. These may span humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Complementary to these disciplines there are politics, law, economics and business (PLEB), and a myriad of others. However, clever acronyms, or indeed “acronym wars” cannot hide that we need better integration of study areas in modern education and research to truly solve today’s complex problems (for example, achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals).

This article was originally conceived when a favourite colleague asked me –  “Why STEAM? Why is arts merely an embellishment to STEM?”. My facetious response at the time was “It’s not – we can HASS STEM”. But to articulate how to do this, is difficult, as this tends to be done intrinsically by experienced multidisciplinary academics. Some applied areas naturally lend themselves to multidisciplinary learning – for example, food science requires traversal over multiple knowledge areas, such that naturally in this discipline “PLEBs HASS STEM.”

So why is there such a big focus on STEM? Early this century a stronger emphasis was placed on STEM education due to underperformance in its constituent disciplines in some western countries. The STEM acronym was only coined 20 years ago in 2001. Later that decade, a report by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine emphasised the links between prosperity, knowledge-intensive jobs dependent on science and technology, and continued innovation to address societal problems. The impact of Industry 4.0 on the future of work, exacerbated under COVID-19, has also served to underscore these imperatives.

The definition of, and progression towards, a well-rounded education, has consequently become somewhat cloudy. Check any entry requirements for study qualifications and you start to see a narrowing of curriculum areas far earlier than should occur. Programs where deliberate exposure to different disciplines occur within a focused area of study are advantageous. Perhaps there is value in a renaissance approach to learning, where development of wider interests and expertise are encouraged, beyond discipline boundaries, thereby leading to graduates who have the capability to have greater impact and flexibility in their careers.

Meanwhile, I’ll be in the corner, encouraging us PLEBs to HASS STEM.

Associate Professor Paulomi (Polly) Burey, Coordinator BSCI Food Science, Faculty of Health, Engineering and Sciences; Centre for Future Materials, Institute of Advanced Engineering and Space Sciences, University of Southern Queensland @DrPollyBurey




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