STEM & Liberal Arts Education: Parallel Lines that Meet?

UD Alumnus Natalie Weisse Explains 'STEM' Through Classical Education Lens

Date Published: March 1, 2018 

Natalie Weisse...'All things, among themselves,
possess an order; and this order is
the form that makes the universe like God.'

Like Beatrice in Dante’s Paradiso, Natalie Weisse, B.S. Physics ’11 B.A. Philosophy ’12, and her students at Great Hearts-Irving desire to understand the divine order of things. For this reason, they memorize the first paragraph of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

"All men by nature desire to know,” Aristotle writes. “An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight."

Through this process of “knowing,” students don’t stop at attaining philosophical wisdom; they also study the natural sciences, commonly referred to today as “STEM.” While Weisse understands the ancient distinction between the two fields, she believes science and the liberal arts are two languages telling a unified story.

“The roots of the STEM disciplines are grounded in our desire to know,” she said. “STEM as thought of as its constituent parts (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), particularly science and mathematics, is fundamental to the study of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) of the seven liberal arts,” Weisse said. “But the quadrivium does not stand alone, it is paired with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) which teaches a potent use of language.”

To illustrate how STEM and the liberal arts are harmonious, Weisse shared that one of her favorite images to describe the constant attractive nature of a gravitational field is Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. Penelope, like gravity, always has an attractive field.

“Penelope is attractive regardless of a man being around, she is always good looking,” Weisse said. “In the same way any object with mass has an attractive gravitational field. Without a man about her, or another massive object near the first object, the attraction has potential to act but is not acting. But when a man shows up, inevitably he will be attracted and pulled toward her. Likewise, the gravitational field surrounding an object always has potential to pull an object towards itself, so when an object "shows up" it is actively pulled toward the first object.”

However, this is not the only image that appears in their studies.

“My students and I are able to find common themes through everything we study,” Weisse said. “We are constantly surprised and delighted to uncover repeated concepts in what might have been thought to be disparate studies.”

The last instruction Vergil gave to Dante in Purgatorio was “let your pleasure be your guide.” For Weisse, questions about the nature of things creates a sense of wonder and delight once the answer presents itself.

“Apart from the usefulness of STEM fields we want to know because it is delightful,” she said. “Although in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as grammar, history, literature, and all other academic disciplines, there are concrete equations, vocabulary, and facts we must put to memory, to know them we must look and wonder. Philosophy taught me to look and wonder. My wonder led me to desire to put order to chaos and see the whole instead of pieces.”

Weisse’s own personal journey of instruction through “delight” did not start as a teacher, but as a University of Dallas student. Learning she could embrace STEM fields and liberal arts was among her greatest delights.

“I delighted in the core. Growing up I was praised as a math and science person and I, too, pegged myself into this hole,” Weisse said. “While I did well in my other classes, I did not think they were particularly important for my education. I suddenly realized I had not given the liberal arts disciplines the proper respect or attention they deserve. I basked in all I was reading and loved learning more. Possibly most importantly, I learned I could love all of it. Now as a math and science teacher, I can testify to my students that they can love all of it, too. UD taught me how to love learning, and I, alongside my peers, get to teach my students the same lesson. ”

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