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UW-Stevens Point junior Austin Jackson makes his way past a working paper-making machine in the university's Paper Science and Chemical Engineering Department. The department could see renewed emphasis under a university plan to put more emphasis on STEM and technical majors and less on majors in liberal arts and humanities. 

From time to time, colleges and universities can — and should — clean out the cobwebs of curricula clutter.

That’s one reason behind the UW-Stevens Point proposal to eventually cut or restructure about 13 majors in liberal arts while shifting resources to about 16 other majors, mostly in the science and technology realm. A looming campus budget gap may be the biggest impetus for the plan, which must still pass muster with a campus governance committee and the UW Board of Regents.

What’s missing in the UW-Stevens Point conversation, which has attracted notice nationwide, is an honest assessment of what employers expect from college graduates they hire. Do they want an emphasis on STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math — or a liberal arts background that may be more adaptable?

The confusing answer is both.

College administrators are grappling with that reality in an era in which they’ve been told repeatedly that businesses want more people with technical expertise. At the same time, they’re being told to produce people who are talented in communications, teamwork, problem-solving and creativity. In a right-brain, left-brain world, that’s a challenging combination of skills.

What those same administrators need to know is that not all STEM disciplines are created equal when it comes to job market demands.

Predictions by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and others suggest there will be roughly three jobs for every one computer science graduate over the next five to seven years, but only one job for every 10 graduates in the life sciences, such as biology.

Striking a balance is crucial, not only in producing graduates needed by employers and society, but in helping young companies tied to academia get on their feet.

One such example is LifeMapping, a soon-to-be incorporated company tied to the UW-Madison Department of Geography.

LifeMapping is an internet-based way for users to map their paths through life, starting with where they were born. Users collect their stories, photos, videos — even music — and pin them to where and when they happened. Its founder is Dean Olsen, a former advertising executive whose own unusual path brought him back to UW-Madison as a student.

On a campus renowned for its startups in biotechnology, engineering and computing, LifeMapping is an example of innovation in the social sciences. In addition to the Department of Geography, it has engaged the university-wide “Discovery to Product” resource for startups and a School of Business competition.

“We are not STEM-based. But, if you think about it, most new companies are idea-based,” said Olsen, whose vision for LifeMapping was influenced by his own life and by working with people with dementia. “It only makes sense that the social sciences should play a bigger role in creating startups.”

Olsen observed over time that older adults, when shown maps, would recall details of their lives that otherwise seemed lost to them, their friends and family. LifeMapping utilizes a website (www.lifemapping.co) and related software applications to securely elicit and store people’s memories.

The testing process will expand now that LifeMapping is recruiting up to 3,000 beta testers, who will receive a free year’s subscription by providing feedback. Volunteers can go to lifemapping.co (not .com) to sign up.

Olsen said the people with whom he has worked in geography have been invaluable in getting LifeMapping off the ground in a relatively short amount of time, something that isn’t always possible with a STEM-based startup.

“We would not be on the cusp of getting outside funding without the support we’ve received,” Olson said.

Administrators at UW-Stevens Point and elsewhere are living in a converging world when it comes to what existing employers want and what emerging companies need. The tech sector is producing career opportunities in project management, recruitment, human relations, branding, design, market research and more. Success in that world requires the ability to communicate effectively, make persuasive arguments, adapt to change and analyze situations as well as information.

In other words, convergence requires some of the very skills that should come with a background in the humanities.

Higher education should routinely review its offerings to students and the larger society it serves. Examples such as LifeMapping illustrate how tech and the liberal arts aren’t necessarily at odds, but complementary.

Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Email: tstill@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

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