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The Liberal Arts:  Enhancing Future Scientists’ Success

Briana Fiser, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of Physics

Heather Miller, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biochemistry



The natural sciences have played an important role throughout the development of the artes liberales, a progenitor of today’s term “liberal arts education”.  During the first through fifth centuries B.C.E., the Greeks invented the focus of each of the original septum artes liberales, which included astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry (Kimball 24). In the fifth century C.E., the Romans adopted the septum artes liberales as a standardizing program (Kimball 30).  During the twelfth century C.E., the artes liberales grew to encompass additional areas of study, including the study of the natural world (Kimball 67).  Together, the arts and sciences shape students into analytical, reflective, lifelong learners with the ability to share their knowledge with others, all related to goals rooted in the original septum artes liberales. Scientists trained in a liberal arts program are thus exposed to a broad number of disciplines, with the opportunity to build and apply their training across these disciplines. Today, many colleges and universities continue to house their natural and physical sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. At High Point University, disciplines within the arts and sciences are housed across multiple schools, all with an explicit commitment to the liberal arts.


The number of skills and habits of mind students can gain from a liberal arts education are extensive. They can include critical thinking, communication (both written and verbal), and complex problem solving, as well as applying knowledge to real-world scenarios. Not surprisingly, a recent survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) indicated that over 75% of employers would like colleges to place more emphasis on these key learning outcomes (It Takes More than a Major). Employers overwhelmingly acknowledge the importance of a liberal arts education because recent graduates bring with them not only field-specific knowledge and skills, but also those that include a broader range. Additionally, employers prioritized those key learning outcomes higher than an applicant’s major in college (It Takes More than a Major).  This implies that many fields are becoming more interdisciplinary. It is no longer critical or even necessary for a college student to choose “just the right” major to be successful. What becomes increasingly evident is that students with strong critical thinking, communication, and complex problem solving skills are the ones who will succeed.


Earnings can be considered another measure that describes a college graduate’s success. In 2014, the AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) studied the earnings of liberal arts majors (defined as the humanities, social sciences, natural and physical sciences, and mathematics) versus graduates of professional and pre-professional programs.  In the first four years after graduation, the study found liberal arts majors earned $5,000 less than professional and pre-professional program graduates.  However, the earnings of liberal arts majors ages 56-60 actually surpassed professional and pre-professional graduates’ earnings.  In mathematics and the physical and natural sciences in particular, the average salary was $20,000 greater (Humphreys).  Contributing to these earnings differences may be the broad knowledge base and skillset supplied by a liberal arts education.  Students are able to practice critical thinking, communication, and problem solving across many disciplines, becoming versatile and analytical thinkers.


All of the abilities listed above are required to be successful in the natural and physical sciences.  By following the scientific method, students learn to engage their minds and the world around them in these many ways.  The scientific method itself wonderfully illustrates the application of these abilities. After observation, a problem is identified. A scientist must think critically about how to solve the problem by applying previously gained knowledge, documenting results, drawing conclusions, and finally communicating this scientific process in both written and verbal forms. The process circles around and repeats, veers off to the left and right, backtracks, but never ends! Those in the natural and physical sciences use these skills every day, further emphasizing the importance of proper cultivation of these ways of thinking and interacting during the undergraduate experience.  This instruction is woven throughout High Point University’s liberal arts general education curriculum, entitled HPUnity. These experiences expose students to a broad range of fields, while our science courses further enhance the application of the scientific method.


Beginning in the introductory and HPUnity laboratory-based science courses at High Point University, students are involved in working with a team, analyzing supplied information, problem-solving using experimental or computational methods, and applying concepts learned in the lab to the real world.  Connecting the real world with what is discussed in class is one of the challenges of effectively reaching undergraduates.  Whether instructors teach about the formation of a planet or molecular processes that occur in a single cell, we still need to make that material accessible to students. To accomplish this, we often utilize hands-on experiments, primary scientific literature, and case-based learning.  Nearly all upper-level courses have a required laboratory component, so students are regularly reading literature, making predictions, performing experiments, reflecting on results, and communicating through written reports.


The more complex the problem at hand, the more important clear communication becomes. We often express to our students that major scientific discoveries have little value and cannot be appreciated without effective communication to an audience. For this reason, we spend a great deal of time practicing the art of scientific writing and presentation.  As part of their general education requirements, students take a First Year HPUnity course, an American Context course, Writing, Religion or Ethical Reasoning, and an Integrative Learning course in which students work collaboratively across disciplines. In all of these courses, they are engaged in communicating their ideas through written and oral means.  In our science departments, we additionally offer the courses Research and Writing in Biochemistry and Chemistry and Research and Writing in Physics.  Students investigate and evaluate what other scientists have discovered, design their own research projects, and present their work verbally using various media formats.  Students learn how to communicate effectively not only in their liberal arts general education courses, but also in the department courses, where those skills are re-emphasized, further practiced, and then refined.  Students are often surprised by the amount of verbal and written communication required of scientists.


For a student who does not pursue an advanced degree or career in the sciences, scientific training at a liberal arts institution is still highly valuable. Students with this training become informed and thoughtful citizens, capable of healthy skepticism and the ability to make evidence-based decisions.  They may become teachers who effectively communicate scientific concepts to the next generation, crucial to the advancement of science and technology.  We may read their news articles or books as they inform the general public of scientific breakthroughs in a clear and concise fashion.  They may work with mathematical computer models in finance or meteorology, or successfully manage teams of others in part due to their collaborative research experiences as undergraduates.  These are only a few examples of potential success stories stemming from a scientifically trained liberal arts student.


Effective communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to apply knowledge to real-world scenarios are embedded deeply in a liberal arts education, in the same way the natural and physical sciences are embedded deeply in the liberal arts.  As a consequence of their liberal arts general education courses, our science majors are better prepared to continue to sharpen these skills in their particular disciplines, and further, they are better prepared for the interdisciplinary world they will be a part of after graduation.


Works Cited

Humphreys, Debra, Kelly, Patrick. How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2014. Web. 15 Mar 2015. <>

It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates, 2013. Web. 15 Mar. 2015. <>

Kimball, Bruce A. Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 1986. Print.