“Adjacent to a Solution”: Meeting Student Needs for Humanity + Skills

three people working at a whiteboard

Kristen Eshleman, Director of Digital Innovation at Davidson College, leads a campus-wide innovation initiative focused on the design and research of mission-aligned experimentation that reimagines a traditional liberal arts institution in the current context. She is a close collaborator of Learning Innovation and has inspired our work here at Duke.

Colton Heward-Mills is Venture Vice President at the Entangled Group, an education venture studio. He manages efforts to conceptualize and build new ventures that address evolving needs of the higher education and professional training industries.

We invited Kristen and Colton to publish a guest post on our blog about a pilot program Davidson is launching this summer, in partnership with Entangled Group. We encourage Duke students who are interested in participating to get in touch and learn more.


Critical thinking and creative problem-solving are the essential skills of liberal arts graduates. By marrying cultural understanding with organizational and analytical frameworks, they offer unique perspectives in demand from every sector of the labor market.

Yet while the move to automation has only increased the need for human skills, earnings of liberal arts graduates in non-STEM majors lag behind their technologically fluent STEM counterparts. To ensure all liberal arts graduates are prepared to shape a world of rapid digital transformation we need to offer relevant digital skills to students from all disciplines, from the passionate anthropologists to the eager chemists.

This idea has been called a “both, and” approach to education design: both the breadth and depth of the liberal arts and applicable digital skills. “Both, And” approaches resonate with students and industry leaders. Students recognize that digital skills will position them to make an immediate impact in technology and technology-adjacent careers. Industry acknowledges that a lack of critical thought about the social and ethical implications of technology is a long-term risk. Current “Both, And” pathways are not accessible to all students. How, then, should educational institutions respond?

Partnerships that link higher education and industry are best suited to the challenge of building an immersive liberal arts undergraduate learning experience that is nimble and responsive to evolving social and economic needs while also grounded in solid intellectual foundations. Davidson’s plan offers one model to meet the needs of the next generation of students.

Start with Needs

We identified four problem areas where “Both, And”-inspired design could make a positive impact:

  1. Create compelling pathways for all students—regardless of major—to engage deeply with technology and graduate “tech capable.”
  2. Advance opportunities for underrepresented populations to succeed in tech.
  3. Alleviate computer science course capacity constraints and break down disciplinary silos so digital skills can be leveraged across disciplines.
  4. Partner with forward-thinking experts and learning experience designers to ensure effective planning and implementation.

Colleges and graduates are having trouble meeting a growing demand for digital skills, especially programming and data science. Expanding academic departments is costly and unlikely to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies used in industry. Institutions and students shared an interest in finding new ways to improve access to digital skills.

Students need more variety in technology pathways. Not every student seeking a career in tech wants to major in CS. As we have seen at Davidson College, their hearts may actually lie with majors such as anthropology, music, economics, or English. We tell our students to major in what they love, and they can still pursue their career of choice, bringing the perspective and skillset of that field to benefit the profession. We need to offer opportunities that make that a possibility.

To fulfill our objectives, we knew we had to build something new.

Design a Solution

Adjacent, a startup incubated by Entangled Group, a Bay Area venture studio, will partner with colleges to help students gain the skills, experiences, and networks necessary to be change makers in an increasingly technology-driven society.

birds flying over San Francisco bay

Davidson and Adjacent teamed up to pilot a “coding-plus” Liberal Arts in Silicon Valley program in the summer of 2019. The program teaches digital skills with approaches that will be accessible to liberal arts students. Its location in San Francisco will expose students to the variety of careers and networks in which digital skills can be applied. Beyond this summer, our goal is to build a parallel experience that integrates digital skills education into the liberal arts to enable diverse learners to thrive in a knowledge economy.

Digital skills do not belong to any one major, background or gender. They must be seen as an essential part of the toolkit of all graduates and made accessible and attainable for all. We need humanities and social sciences skillsets alongside the purely technical.

Join Us in San Francisco

The Adjacent-Davidson summer 2019 program is open to undergraduates from any institution, including Duke (by petition—final deadline is April 9). We will have two cohorts: June 2 – July 12 and July 14 – August 23. For more information on how to apply, visit our websiteor write contactus@summerofcode2019.com.