New Program Fosters Well-Rounded STEM Graduates

Expansion of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Humanities in STEM ushers in a new era in the Israeli university curriculum

By Rafael Ben-Menashe

Beginning in the next academic year, 1,500 incoming students in Engineering, Exact Sciences and Life Sciences will encounter a new opportunity in their studies: they will be able to take three Humanities courses as part of their regular degree requirements. The force behind this move – a first in Israel – is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Humanities in STEM at TAU.

“Students will experience dramatically different learning styles by switching between humanities and STEM subjects,” says Prof. Yochai Oppenheimer, a member of TAU’s Department of Hebrew Literature and Academic Head of the Mandel Center. He describes this change as “a refreshing jump into a pool for the mind” and says that, through the Mandel Center, TAU is embracing a global trend of incorporating liberal arts into science and technology curricula. The focus will be on introductory and survey courses that will instill essential skills of humanistic thought such as critical thinking, debating, writing, ethical analysis and more.

Battling a worldwide trend

Around the world, enrollment in the humanities has fallen over the last two decades while that of STEM has increased. At Tel Aviv University, the number of undergraduates at the Entin Faculty of Humanities dropped from 2,600 in 2003 to 1,600 in 2018, a reduction of 38% over 15 years.

In response, the Jack , Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, under the leadership of the late Morton L. Mandel, pioneered the Program for Humanities in Engineering at TAU in 2016. Completely new on the Israeli academic landscape at the time, the Program allowed a group of 25 honors students to add a sizeable humanities module to their engineering studies. They were given generous scholarships along with personal mentors to guide them in course selection. The Program was a great success: Participants praised it and top tech companies expressed eagerness to hire graduates.

Based on these positive results, in 2019 TAU established the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for STEM and the Humanities to replicate the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Program for Humanities in Engineering for outstanding Exact Sciences and Life Sciences students as well. The newest expansion of the initiative, toward the 2021-22 school year, will extend humanities offerings to all incoming STEM students at TAU.    

“The Mandel Center reinforces the humanities’ relevance to science and technology, nurturing well-rounded technological leaders in Israel. Presently the Israeli Council for Higher Education is considering duplicating the program at other Israeli universities,” says Oppenheimer.

Welcoming uncertainty

Students enrolled in Mandel Center-sponsored humanities courses say they provide a bonus, a break from the more regimented styles of thinking in STEM subjects.

“In the sciences, we fear questions that don’t ultimately have definitive answers,” says Michal Levin, a fourth-year engineering student. “In the humanities, we are taught to embrace those types of questions.”

Similarly, Ido Mellul, a first-year biology student, says: “The program has helped me better formulate philosophical questions in a scientific context. For example, I questioned my lecturers regarding applied ethics in the case of gene-editing technology,” he says. “This was something I didn’t think I could do before.”

Levin also points to the Mandel Scholarship she received as a tremendous aid in her studies. “It eliminated the stress of finding work and financing my life while studying.”

The courses offered through the Mandel Center cover philosophy, rhetoric, cultural studies, literature and history.

“The idea behind the program immediately struck a chord with me,” says Amit Alkoni, a third-year engineering student. “I served in an engineering unit of the Intelligence Corps in the army, and my service helped me envision how effective evaluation of communication and ethics can expand my professional horizons.These are tools I ultimately acquired through studying the humanities.”

Last year, shortly before his death, TAU conferred its highest honor, the degree of Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa, upon Morton Mandel, an entrepreneur and lifelong Israel supporter, for his visionary support of TAU.

“The Mandel Foundation’s generosity has allowed TAU to rejuvenate the humanities, ensuring that TAU students benefit from this crucial school of thought, which in turn benefits Israeli society as a whole,” says TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat.

Prof. Jehuda Reinharz, President and CEO of of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, adds: “We are delighted to collaborate with Tel Aviv University on this important venture. The combination of STEM subjects with humanities education is precisely the kind of preparation every student should have today and in the future before he/she enters the work force. Given the decline in humanistic education and values this is the time to have such interdisciplinary programs. Tel Aviv University is a pioneer in this far-sighted work across the disciplines, and I am quite certain that it will become a model for many other institutions in Israel and abroad.”

Featured image: Mandel Scholars Amit Alkoni and Michal Levin. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

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