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Duo helping expansive MSU STEAM curriculum community evolve, innovate, and grow

Stephen Thomas is the assistant dean for STEM Education Teaching and Learning and Julie Libarkin is the associate dean for STEM Education Research and Innovation, both in the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education at Michigan State University.

In September of 2021, MSU cut the ribbon on its state-of-the art and now multiple award-winning STEM Teaching and Learning Facility. Stephen and Julie talk about MSU's evolving STEM curriculum and about some of the things that go on inside the STEM building.

The goal for the position for a STEM dean at MSU initially wasn’t thought of to be for two people.

“So, if you read the job ad for the position, it's a very complex position,” Libarkin says. “Stephen and I were talking about it, and we both said that alone, neither one of us could do that job. But we realized that together, we really are sides of a multi-faceted die, and we have different communities we engage with. We have different strengths, and we collaborate really well together. We've co-taught, we've had grants together, and we've created curriculum together. And so, we decided to ask if we could apply as a team. And they said we could, and we did. And I think they saw what we saw.”

We know that STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Why have we heard so much about STEM in the last decade or so? Why is it so important to focus more in this area?

There are multiple reasons,” Thomas says. “I think a lot of times when people talk about career preparation, a lot of the jobs that are available plug into those disciplines or those skill sets that those disciplines will train. And I think there's also a link to this desire for innovation. I feel like societally, we really are always focusing on this idea of innovation, and we see STEM as a pathway to getting that type of innovation.”

Julie Libarkin
Julie Libarkin

“I take a very expansive view of what STEM is,” continues Libarkin. “To me, it's this systematic investigation of solving of problems and understanding the world around us. That includes people and all the things that people do. The other thing that's really of value for thinking about innovating in STEM is really recognizing that STEM is happening in the arts. STEM is happening in the humanities. STEM is happening in business and communication. And if you look across our campus, there are people who teach STEM-focused courses and people who do research in STEM education housed everywhere on this campus. So, it's important, I think because it's integrated in how humans live in the world.”

What about adding the A, which we often do, for arts to make STEAM?

“Adding the A has some interesting roots and discussion around that,” continues Thomas. “So, if you talk to various communities, there's a discussion about why just the arts? There's also a role for humanities and the social sciences. Medical health education is sometimes left off STEM or not seen as being included in that depending on who you ask. With STEAM, we think about it more inclusively.

“How do we have more communication and dialogue between these disciplines? Historically, when we've seen STEAM, there's been this bringing in of the arts to make STEM more entertaining. But there hasn't been this more, maybe robust discussion about how their ways of knowing can inform each other and improve the process for both.

Stephen Thomas
Stephen Thomas

“And so, how do we not just take from the arts, but also participate and have a richer engagement between those communities? We’re passionate about having these conversations and dialogues. The ones that we've been having on campus are just fascinating. How do you get people engaged in science who may not view themselves as scientists? That's one of the hopes that we're seeing for the STEM building; that if we have these relationships with other disciplines, that it will allow others to come into STEM spaces and view themselves as able to engage with that work.”

How is the STEM or STEAM curriculum evolving at MSU?

“I think we're at a cusp of potential growth,” says Libarkin. “And this really is an ideal time for the building to have the ribbon cutting ceremony, and it's ready for use; because now we have a place, and it's a building. It’s turning into a place where people want to be, where students want to be, and where faculty want to teach. People want to understand and be part of a particular place, and that gives us an opportunity to grow the community in unforeseen directions. You must get a lot of voices around a table. I really want to build community among anyone who thinks of themselves in any way, shape, or form as trying to understand learning in STEM, writ large, and build a community and have us work together to elevate the entire community.

“Honestly, I think the best part of this job has been having the space and the opportunity to connect with people and just hear what people are doing, from undergraduates through upper administrators, learning how the institution functions at many levels. Reach out if you want to share, if you have ideas, or if you have needs.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.