Innovation Studies in the College of Global Liberal Arts – spanning and extending traditional fields of study

What can liberal arts offer the world today? And what form does an education geared towards enabling the innovators of tomorrow, such as the College of Global Liberal Arts (GLA), take? With specialist subjects covering neuroscience, design, artificial intelligence, technology management, and biology, we brought the professors involved together to discuss these questions and much, much more.

*Writing as of the academic year 2019.

Group photo of Professor Choi, Haimes, Yamagishi, Marutschke, and Marquez

Enabling the ‘innovators of tomorrow’ – How does the GLA aim to achieve this?

CHOI: In order to expand upon the understanding of the world and history upon which conventional liberal arts is premised, and to redefine it in a deeper context, we have recruited faculty from a diverse array of fields. This is one of the most important features of GLA. But before discussing this in more detail, perhaps it would help for each of us to introduce our areas of expertise.

HAIMES: I explore the field of design using both practical and theoretical approaches. Design research tends to be discussed from a Eurocentric standpoint, and rarely from the perspectives of other regions. My research looks into the meaning of design in regions outside of Europe, with a particular focus on the contemporary Asia Pacific region. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the Asia Pacific area by exploring the unique design techniques that have been developed in the region.

YAMAGISHI: My specialization is cognitive psychology, with a research focus on the mechanisms of visual perception. I use MRIs to examine the kinds of mechanisms that humans use to see and perceive the world around them. More specifically, I look at the relationship between visual attention and mood. There are studies which show that the field of vision of subjects narrows, with subjects themselves easily distracted, when they feel depression or anxiety. With my research, my goal is to be able to estimate the level of depression or anxiety from visual attention measurements. Conversely, I want to show that it is possible to reduce anxiety and lead a happier life by expanding one’s scope of visual attention.

MARUTSCHKE: My primary fields of research are information science, data mining, artificial intelligence, and educational technology. I seek out new knowledge from information patterns and obtainable digital data. Recently, I have been analyzing data and images from the web and social media to uncover new cultural patterns about color. Another aspect of my research is tackling the issues surrounding artificial intelligence, in particular issues concerning ethical and critical human thought.

MARQUEZ: Bioenergy is my area of expertise, with a focus on marine bacteria. I am looking for more effective ways to collect seaweed biomass and convert it into biofuel and other forms of bioenergy. Coming from an island where resources are scarce, for my community securing energy and managing water have always been a big issue. Because the island has no natural source of freshwater, taking advantage of the abundant seawater and marine biomass can help coastal communities generate their own energy. This is why I turned my attention to anaerobic marine bacteria that can effectively produce energy from marine biomass using seawater.

CHOI: These are all fascinating topics, which relate to my primary research fields of knowledge creation and technology management. With innovation as the constant basis for my work, I look at the interplay between technology and human knowledge. Specifically, I am exploring ways to integrate some of the unspoken aspects of traditional Japanese craftsmanship into the theory and knowledge of science-based Western engineering. By elucidating the dynamic interactions between these two factors, I believe that companies in myriad regions – not just Japan and the West – will be able to identify new areas for innovation.

MARUTSCHKE: This links in at the same time to our general approach at GLA, which is to try to get students asking questions that transcend the boundaries of existing academic disciplines. The diversity of research interests we have just introduced here represents this. It is, I believe, a unique feature of education in GLA, which starts first and foremost with innovation. Society today faces an enormous number of complicated problems that cannot be solved easily, and innovation is the key to solving them. The GLA challenges students to think about difficult and challenging questions – something I believe to be very important. For example, we ask students to think for themselves why bringing together such a broad spectrum of research areas is necessary when it comes to resolving large and complex issues.

HAIMES: That’s right. By teaching students through the lenses of our respective disciplines, we can get them to develop a mindset that looks to approach problems from a wide range of different perspectives. Imbuing students with the ability to think about things from multiple angles is certainly one of the goals of GLA.

MARQUEZ: From my perspective, I would like to see students focus their efforts on energy. Ethiopia, for example, built a hydroelectric dam to generate energy, but in stopping the flow of the River Nile, the water supply of neighboring countries was duely affected. Creating new sources of energy is not just an issue of energy production, it encompasses a range of other economic and social factors. Thinking about the interplay of multiple factors in the production of energy in this way, really does help to develop a spirit of innovation. Hence it is a topic well suited to the GLA.

What meaning is there in studying liberal arts in the modern age?

YAMAGISHI: As I mentioned earlier, I deal with issues related to neuroscience. With rapid advances in science and technology, we can now use technology to even change our own brains, enhancing human capabilities with man-made modifications. The issue, however, is whether or not from a moral perspective this is the right thing to do. One of the classes I am currently teaching is ethical thinking, wherein we look closely at ethical issues surrounding science and technology. With technology advancing at such a pace, we cannot easily predict what will happen in the future or what kinds of technologies will emerge. Yet this is the social context into which our students will emerge as graduates, and as such it is vital for them to develop effective critical and ethical thinking skills in order to confront the issues and problems that will inevitably arise in the future. A liberal arts education, and in particular a Global liberal arts education can equip students themselves with these basic skills.

CHOI: I agree. When most Asian people hear the term liberal arts, they tend to think of art, music, and painting. I feel this is holding the people of Asia back. One of the aims of the faculty teaching at GLA is to help overcome these limitations that Japan and the rest of Asia face. We are trying to catalyze new kinds of social innovation through our teaching.

MARQUEZ: Yes, when I teach science fundamentals, for example, it is a challenge for many of my students and they often ask me why they have to learn science in a liberal arts college (laughs). But I work to eliminate this aversion to science through my lectures by focusing first on the connections between science and the humanities and social sciences – providing a conceptual bridge in effect.

MARUTSCHKE: In teaching artificial intelligence and programming, I employ a similar approach by using simple theoretical concepts to bridge the gap between science and the liberal arts. For example, to help students overcome their fear of programming, my classes begin by asking students to consider the steps required to boil an egg. Placing a pot of water on the stove, adding the eggs and boiling them, though an easy task for humans to understand, is not so easy for a computer. You have to unpack each step and consider how stages interact with each other.

HAIMES: The ability to think dynamically in this way, considering a problem from a number of different perspectives, is something that helps prepare students for an unpredictable future. When they confront new problems with no clear answers, they will need to ask the right questions and think critically. Studying Global Liberal Arts will provide them with these skills. For example, the two iGLA (Introduction to Global Liberal Arts) subjects are not taught by just one faculty member, but by a team of faculty. Each team consists of one faculty in humanities, another in social science and then myself, Professor Yamagishi and Professor Marutschke teaching from the perspective of science and technology. Professor Yamagishi teaches human intelligence from the standpoint of psychology and neuroscience, I teach design and society, and Professor Marutschke teaches from the perspective of programming and computer science. By working together in this way, we can teach, and encourage students to connect, three separate disciplines, which would traditionally be separated.

CHOI: This approach, providing a diverse array of content with faculty from three different areas of expertise, is intended to inspire. A subject all first-year students are required to take, iGLA aims to provide newly admitted students with broad-based learning – one of the most important approaches we employ in GLA. The last thing we want is for students to live in their own worlds and believe they are always right. Our aim is to encourage students to broaden their perspective and learn to listen to other people’s opinions through the study of liberal arts.

What are your expectations for students now and into the future, as the ‘innovators of tomorrow’?

CHOI: I want our students to become people who can demonstrate leadership. Our mission is to guide them towards becoming people who can break down existing traditions and frameworks and operate on the front line of innovation. The skill I think they need to achieve this kind of breakthrough is intellectual tolerance. Intellectually tolerant people, who have an understanding of the world of the future, and who can survive and demonstrate leadership in that world, are precisely the people needed to make innovation happen.

MARUTSCHKE: When it comes to tolerance, it is important to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible. As Professor Choi mentioned, making innovation happen requires breaking through existing limitations. GLA uses ethical and critical thinking as tools to address the entire sphere of liberal arts. As we have already mentioned, this means exposing students to a wide range of fields regardless of prior knowledge, strengths, or weaknesses. It is by making the most of such opportunities, by insatiably absorbing all kinds of knowledge, that students can overcome their own limitations and thus develop an innovative spirit. The same goes for faculty members too as we encounter, recognize and learn to deal with topics that lie outside our areas of expertise.

YAMAGISHI: The knowledge and skills we teach at GLA are not limited to specific fields; they are universal. Specifically, I am referring to the ethical and critical thinking we have already mentioned several times. In such a dynamically changing world, it is entirely possible that the jobs of today will have disappeared in just a few decades. The experience of studying at GLA, I have no doubt, will prove to be an amazing asset for our students as they face up to, and look to survive in, an uncertain future. Hopefully our students will use the skills they learn here to become leaders in their respective fields and make innovation happen.

HAIMES: Yes, although whilst it is certainly not imperative for students to go on and become leaders, something we aspire to for all our students is for them to become independent, dynamic thinkers, because innovation arises from this. My own personal view is that university students who don’t know what the world will be like in the future, or what kind of career they will find themselves in, should avoid specializing in just one field. Having said that, it is also important to discern which skills, like programming, will still be needed in the future and to develop those skills. If our students can acquire the ability to think independently, whilst gaining practical knowledge and experience, regardless of what path the future may take, they will be equipped to be successful.

MARQUEZ: Professor Haimes, I think, has summed up out thoughts well in terms of the importance of taking a bird’s eye view of the world, and the concepts at work therein, in order to carefully discern which elements, from a variety of fields, will still exist in the future. From my perspective as a scientist, areas such as artificial intelligence, human intelligence, design, and energy innovation are already emerging as areas students will need to deal with. My hope is that students will focus on these areas in order to prepare themselves for the future. That said, however, the great strength of the GLA is that it prepares students for every eventuality.

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