All Aboard

By Mark Lambert, M.S. '97

Panel spotlights the role of arts and humanities in healthcare.

Comprehensive STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) education is a team effort and the future of healthcare education. That was the core message a group of Radford University and Radford University Carilion (RUC) faculty members focused on during a first-of-its-kind collaborative panel presentation at the Association of 2020 American Colleges & Universities Virtual Conference last November.  

The panel presentation, titled "All Aboard: Gaining STEAM with Humanities in the Health Sciences,” highlighted how integrating the arts and humanities is essential to creating robust programs in fields like nursing and the health sciences. The inclusion of these areas helps to foster strong critical thinking skills, a firm understanding of historical context and a well-rounded depth of knowledge.

Amy Rubens, Ph.D. left; Courtney Watson, Ph.D. top; Sallie Beth Johnson, Ph.D. right; and Milenda Staykova, Ed.D bottom

It was the first national event to bring together faculty from the Radford and Roanoke locations for a joint presentation since the merger of Jefferson College of Health Sciences into the Radford University family of schools and colleges in 2019. The panel consisted of Sallie Beth Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor and program director of health sciences and public health at RUC; Amy Rubens, Ph.D., associate professor of English and interim associate dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Research at Radford University; Milena Staykova, Ed.D., professor and program coordinator for the Master of Nursing: Family Nurse Practitioner program at RUC; and Courtney Watson, Ph.D., associate professor of English at RUC.

“The panel presentation was a really interesting experience because our group was interdisciplinary, crossing colleges and programs,” said Watson. “Diversity makes us better. The more perspectives and lived experiences we can share, the stronger we will be as scholars, practitioners and educators.”

Watson said that collaboration among faculty across multiple fields and disciplines serves not only their own research and scholarship but also the students by giving them richer, more dynamic perspectives.

“Every field in science and healthcare is part of an ecosystem, so it’s beneficial to develop a broad understanding and effective communication between them,” Watson said.

Integrating arts and humanities into healthcare education

Pressure cuffs, syringes, test tubes and stethoscopes, the panel made it clear during its presentation that there is much more to a multifaceted curriculum than just learning to use those tools. The trend in healthcare higher education seems to indicate that a mixture of experience with those participatory skills and instruments, combined with  STEAM-related skills, is on the upswing.   

“In the last 10 years, there’s been a surge of interest in integrating the arts and humanities into nursing and health sciences at the undergraduate level,” Rubens said. “Formal academic programs in the health humanities, like Radford University’s own health humanities minor, have increased exponentially.”

Rubens added that she believes the surge is happening because integrating the humanities and STEAM programs into healthcare education enables future health professionals to develop important habits of mind, like suspending judgment, viewing situations from broader perspectives, expanding listening skills and implementing critical reflection — all skills that can make for more empathetic and aware providers.

Additionally, Rubens said the COVID-19 global health pandemic has shown a broader audience that compassion, empathy and other skills rooted in the humanities are important to patients in need during their most desperate moments of treatment.  

“Approaching illness and caretaking from a humanistic perspective, instead of through a purely biomedical lens, also benefits all learners, regardless of career aspiration,” Rubens said.

Unique perspectives on implementing STEAM concepts

Each panel member brought a unique perspective, rooted in research and publication, to the discussion in support of including a STEAM structure in health education.

Rubens spoke about how her research into why an interdisciplinary approach is so effective at addressing issues like burnout and compassion fatigue, as well as new directions and opportunities at institutions like Radford University for teaching, learning and research activities that bridge the arts and humanities with STEM.

Staykova addressed practical concerns about the necessity of strong research, writing and communication skills in fields like nursing, where the stakes are so high and lives literally depend on getting it right every time.

Johnson offered insight into why effective communication is a priority for public health and the intrinsic value these collaborative initiatives bring to the community. Watson talked about how her pedagogy focuses on the importance of clarity and communication in both clinical and non-clinical healthcare fields.

Watson said the group members received a very positive response to their presentation and were excited that the attendees were so engaged in their analysis.

“The audience seemed to be fascinated to learn how we have tied more liberal arts traditions and perspectives into the deeply engrained STEAM culture at RUC,” Watson recalled. “I’m excited that we got to present such a dynamic model for what this type of collaboration can look like.”

Rubens added, “Our panel illustrated the ways that the new health humanities minor might create increased collaboration among our campuses and students. One exciting possibility is that students of all majors will be learning about the relationship among the arts, humanities and STEAM with and from one another. It’s been exciting to see how these co-learning experiences already are developing.”

Sharing experiences in STEAM education

There are currently tentative plans for Watson and Johnson to co-author a book chapter based on the panel discussion. While those plans are in the beginning stages, it could be another step in sharing the unique STEAM methodolgy within healthcare education model being used at Radford and RUC with a wider audience.
“It has been wonderful to see faculty across disciplines embrace how we teach our students at Radford University and RUC,” Watson said. “This is such an exciting time to be a humanities scholar working with students and colleagues in the sciences as STEAM initiatives start to gain a lot of traction in the academic community. We’re developing a strong interdisciplinary tradition that is going to be a tremendous benefit at RUC, as well as the larger University community.”


Jun 21, 2021