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  • Amy Scott

How STEM and the Social Sciences Can Benefit From an Integration of Disciplines Using Human-Centred Design

Updated: Jun 23

Within my own experience in my education, and I’m sure for many others, there has always felt like there exists a firm distinction between “hard” and “soft” sciences. The terms hard and soft themselves are only colloquial and are often used to compare the different scientific fields based on merits like objectivity and methodology. These “hard” sciences are typically those found in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering and math) whereas “soft” sciences are typically what we see as being the social sciences. When making these distinctions about “hard” and “soft” sciences, lines tend to be drawn that separate the two in opposite directions, with little attention paid to areas of overlap or the ways they may stand to strengthen one another. 

I personally have always grown up within an arts background; when I first got the choice to opt out of science and math courses in high school I was quick to drop them to be replaced with visual arts and creative writing courses. Once I decided to pursue higher education I stuck to my arts-based path with my degree in the Arts and Contemporary Studies program at Toronto Metropolitan University. Within the program I chose to major in anthropology and since have been exposed to a wide variety of the social sciences over the past four years of my degree. Almost all of my learning has centred around the sociohistorical analysis of different human cultures, societies, both macro and micro level patterns, behaviours and thoughts. This has allowed me to feel as though I deeply understand the social aspects of our world and how on a larger scale humans tend to interact with one another and the basic functions of society. 

Now, when looking at the main disciplines within the STEM field, all heavily utilise quantitative, stats-based and objective data analysis to understand our world. This is incredibly useful and necessary in order to not only have a measurable understanding of society but to make society run in the first place. I see it as, without STEM and its impact on human activity, there would be far less to even interpret and analyse within the social sciences themselves. Therefore one has to exist in order to inform the other and vice versa when looking at the motivations behind the practical use and development of STEM fields within society. 

These parallel understandings of our world from both a “soft” social science view and “hard” STEM science view (for sake of argument I’m counting math as a type of science) come from very different backgrounds and methodologies. Yet when looked at together both deeply enrich our ability to interpret, analyse and reflect on the human impacts on the world around us. 

When this firm distinction is made between these two types of science, first experienced by many in early education, it sets us up to see them as opposites of one another and can negate the wealth of knowledge held in their collaboration. Even the colloquial labels of “hard” and “soft” science draw lines which pit their academic rigour against one another. As many progress into higher education at the post-secondary level these lines have the ability to be drawn further apart. When I first dropped out of math and biology in high school, I was only rewarded with praises from teachers and peers in my arts curriculum who reminded me that I would never need those tools in my creative future. I’m sure many STEM education students can relate as social sciences or creative arts took the back burner and were swiftly replaced with robotics, physics and calculus courses. Yet, when starting my post-secondary education at TMU there was no mandatory need for any interaction with STEM courses or curriculum - even the buildings I had classes in felt separate from the engineering and tech buildings. Though I was not actively seeking it out, there were few and far lines of connection between me in the social sciences/arts and STEM. 

Sebastian, one of my best friends and fellow TMU students who recently graduated with a BEng in mechanical engineering, took his first social sciences class just this spring with an introductory level sociology course. Though there are “liberal studies” requirements for most degrees on campus, the social sciences are not necessarily required. However, I do think the liberal studies requirement is a great addition to TMU's curriculum and helps facilitate more interchange between various degree programs. 

So then where exactly do we go from here? Though there are many avenues which allow for a greater collaboration between the social sciences and the STEM fields to take place, in working with the Up4 The Challenge organisation I’ve recently been introduced to one: Human-centred design! Previous to my time with Up4 The Challenge, I had never heard of the concept of human-centred design, let alone understood how it exists at the intersection of STEM (particularly engineering) fields and the social sciences. Human-centred design is defined as a problem-solving technique that puts real people at the centre of the development process, enabling the creation of products or services that resonate with audiences' needs. Further, the goal is to keep users’ wants, pain points and preferences front of mind during every phase of the process to create a more intuitive and accessible product (Harvard Business School, 2020). 

The use and implementation of such a “human-centred” process relies on the knowledge and understanding of humans to begin with. Though STEM fields prepare students to understand humans on a more quantitative basis, room for social interpretation helps to diversify its understanding more holistically. Additionally, STEM fields such as engineering equip students with the tools and knowledge of how to tangibly solve problems yet perhaps interpreting and understanding the problem (and how they may arise on a social level - ie. such as an issue like climate change) is better helped by someone who is equipped with the knowledge of interpreting societal patterns. 

Human-centred design is a methodology which can greatly enable a natural overlap between both STEM and social science fields as it relies on the knowledge of both disciplines in order to take place. This human-centred design process is a core pillar to Up4 The Challenge within their workshops and I have seen how its process facilitates collaboration of the two disciplines, incorporating ethnographic type research to the creation of tangible prototypes. As a result, this process also has the ability to inspire students to take action on causes they genuinely care about to make change. Human-centred design is such an intensional process, where students can take larger issues and work them through the process until they are left with a tangible solution to the problem, therefore encouraging students to feel as though they can make a real impact within their own communities. Perhaps this can be seen as a consequence of such an integrated learning experience between STEM and the social sciences, as their collaboration strengthens their own disciplines but mainly each other's in a way that inspires meaningful action. 

I have felt thankful for my time spent with the Up4 The Challenge organisation as a part of my Arts and Contemporary Studies fellowship course at TMU for many reasons. Yet, the exposure to newer styles of learning and to STEM based learning has by far been one of the most enriching aspects to my own education career. I feel confident that after this experience I will bring parts of it into what I have left of my undergraduate degree in the arts and look forward to integrating a more multidisciplinary approach into my further research and studies. 

References 


Landry, Lauren. (December 2020). What Is Human-Centred Design? Harvard Business School Online. 


Bohanon, Mariah. (August 2020). Integrating Social Sciences and STEM Benefits Both Disciplines. Insight Into Diversity.


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