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What Are the Connections between the Liberal Arts and Innovation in Silicon Valley?

Published: January 27, 2016

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A symbol of high-tech companies and products that have changed our daily lives, Silicon Valley is a center of innovation that thrives on its networks of entrepreneurs, designers, programmers, corporations and start-ups, and universities and research institutes.

What makes Silicon Valley's "innovation ecosystem" so powerful? What are the connections between the liberal arts and innovation? Are there cultural traits or innovative practices found in Silicon Valley that can be applied on ACM campuses?

Those are some of the questions that 15 ACM faculty will explore this summer during Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem, the fifth in the series of ACM Seminars in Advanced Interdisciplinary Learning (SAIL).

“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, with the humanities, that yields the results that make our heart sing.”

- Steve Jobs

Read more about Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem

The leaders of the seminar, who proposed the topic and site, are Lawrence University professors Adam Galambos (Dwight and Marjorie Peterson Professor of Innovation and Associate Professor of Economics), David Hall (Associate Professor of Chemistry), and Martyn Smith (Associate Professor of Religious Studies).

They will be joined by a dozen faculty members from Colorado, Cornell, Ripon, and St. Olaf Colleges, who were selected through a competitive process to participate in the seminar as campus teams. The group will engage in a ten-day, on-site seminar in northern California on July 11-20, 2016.

The itinerary for the on-site seminar proposes site visits to a variety of institutions, including companies ranging from Apple and Google to start-ups like Coursera, science labs at Stanford University, venture capital firms, and sites of modern spiritual exploration such as the Shambhala Meditation Center. The seminar leaders also plan to tap alumni of ACM colleges who work in Silicon Valley to talk about how their undergraduate education influenced their career paths.

A key goal of the SAIL seminars is to help students in their last two years of undergraduate study make connections across disciplines and synthesize the work of their disciplinary majors. Building on their experience this summer, the Silicon Valley seminar participants will collaborate during the 2016-17 academic year to develop multi-disciplinary curricular materials for upper-level students on their campuses, such as case studies, modules and other course elements, and new courses.

SAIL participants in past years also have used their seminar experiences to further their individual research agendas and to broaden their areas of teaching expertise.

Faculty participants selected for the SAIL Silicon Valley seminar include:

  • Colorado College: Ryan Banagale (Assistant Professor of Music), Emily Chan (Associate Professor of Psychology), and Daniel Johnson (Gerald L. Schlessman Professor of Economics);
  • Cornell College: Michelle Mouton (Professor of English), Misha Quill (Assistant Professor of Anthropology), and Ross Sowell, (Assistant Professor of Computer Science);
  • Ripon College: Mollie Oblinger (Associate Professor of Art), Timothy Reed (Associate Professor of Spanish), and Henrik Schatzinger (Associate Professor of Politics and Government); and
  • St. Olaf College: Irve Dell (Professor of Art), Paul Jackson (Associate Professor of Chemistry & Environmental Studies), and Sian Muir (Director of Management Studies and Entrepreneur in Residence).

Funded by a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, SAIL seminars have enabled groups of faculty from ACM colleges to travel to Jordan, Colorado, Italy, and Washington, DC in the past four summers for intensive, ten-day explorations of compelling topics.


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