That was an epiphany for Solti. He realized that his training in computational structural mechanics wasn't enough. "I was an active-duty airman for 15 years before realizing my gut was as valuable as my mind; my intuition as useful as scientific analyses; and my agility, creativity and innovation honed the decision-making necessary to function in complex environments, Solti wrote in a recent blog post. Now he advises those who design the curriculum at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and he’s finding new ways to give students the technical education they need to be airmen while broadening their scope and imparting them with the more holistic worldview afforded by the liberal arts. That involves honing students’ critical-thinking skills, for example, or encouraging them to analyze the historical legacies of present-day challenges.
From repairing planes to encrypting classified information, people who work in the Air Force need a background in science, technology, engineering, and math—fields collectively known as STEM. But the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is an officer-training school with a liberal arts bent. “The courses that our students take are weighted heavily in STEM fields, but cadets are exposed to a holistic curriculum,” Solti said. For example, cadets are required to complete a capstone at the end of their education so that they can integrate the various subjects they have learned over the past four years.
Solti and others at the Academy see a background in the humanities as a way to understand complex, interdisciplinary relationships between seemingly disparate entities. When military decision-makers consider possible tactics to approach a situation, they have to consider the people and relationships that decision may affect, even if those results aren’t immediately obvious. "It’s not just taking down the electric power, for example, it’s about the effect [that action] creates, Solti said. "Electricity powers computers that feed the financial network that feeds [the] economy—it’s a single integrated system. And to evaluate how people in a country might react to an action like that, historical and cultural reference points can make the difference between a successful operation and a debacle.
For airmen, this holistic understanding is most important in time-sensitive situations when they have to make high-stakes decisions. So administrators have built these hypothetical decision-making opportunities into the curriculum. "One great example is that we allow our cadets to operate a war room-type scenario where they are conducting a mission, Solti said. "They have to make these real decisions in a safe virtual environment. But you can see some of these ‘aha’ moments when they’re making what turn out to be poor decisions constrained by uncertainty and time. These wrong decisions are the "scar tissue that students develop and that informs their decision-making when the stakes are higher.