Thursday, February 19, 2015

We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training. From WashPo.

After Music Class We'll Get To Work on Those Sonnets!

In business and at every level of government, we hear how important it is to graduate more students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, as our nation’s competitiveness depends on it. The Obama administration has set a goal of increasing STEM graduates by one million by 2022, and the “desperate need” for more STEM students makes regular headlines. The emphasis on bolstering STEM participation comes in tandem with bleak news about the liberal arts — bad job prospects, programs being cut, too many humanities majors.

As a chemist, I agree that remaining competitive in the sciences is a critical issue. But as an instructor, I also think that if American STEM grads are going lead the world in innovation, then their science education cannot be divorced from the liberal arts.



  1. If we're so short of STEM majors, why then is it STILL so hard to get a job as a scientist? Why do young scientists STILL have to traipse around the world as postdocs for 5-10 years? And it’s not just in esoteric fields like astronomy: the same thing is STILL happening in obviously immediately practical fields such as condensed-matter physics. I am fascinated by how, since at least 1969, pay and job conditions for scientists have steadily eroded, over a steady chorus by pundits proclaiming we're facing "an imminent shortage of scientists." In a market economy, if you want more of a certain kind of workers, you can try PAYING them more.

    I agree, however, that all science majors really must get a firm background in the humanities. I hate putting that kind of power into the hands on anyone who hasn't. But then, I also think all majors of all kinds must get a firm background in the humanities. That’s nothing new.

    1. I was deeply gratified when one of my Quantitative Hamsterology majors recommended that I read Anton Chekhov the other day. I had mentioned in the hall that I felt I was weak on 19th century literature and was trying do decide where to start. Out of nowhere the mousey little guy who sits in the back looks up and says "Oh yeah, Chekhov is great. Worth your time."

      There is still hope for the leaders of tomorrow.

  2. Exactly correct Frod but they don't need to pay them (us) more. Businesses solve the problem by importing more foreign STEM people. Those workers are tied down with visa requirements and happily work for less.

  3. I'm seeing increasing references to STEAM (with the A standing for "arts," which seems to stand in for humanities generally in some cases, but refer just to the creative arts in others). Eventually, we'll probably work our way back 'round to seeing the value of a well-rounded liberal arts education (and in the meantime, I appreciate the regular acknowledgements of the value of writing and critical-thinking skills, including by this author, though I wish more people would put their money where their mouths are. As I may have mentioned once or twice before, teaching writing, and the associated research/analytical/critical-thinking skills, is labor-intensive, and the quality/rigor of the program really does correlate with the teachers' workload, including whatever they/we may have to do in addition to teaching to keep the wolf from the door).

    As far as employment for current STEM majors go, I agree that the picture is far from rosy. I know a good many STEM Ph.D.s, all highly competent people with impressive educational credentials and plenty of experience. They definitely make more money than I do (probably 2x or more than I do, in several cases), but, whether they work in industry, government, or higher ed., they're under tremendous pressure to get grants/accounts, worry about losing their jobs, spend up to several years searching for new ones when they do, etc., etc.

    I think we're all being affected, one way or another, by the withdrawal of state funding from higher ed, and the growth of institutional structures in response to that withdrawal (which probably affect private as well as public universities). STEM folks are expected to bring money to the institution via grants (even though that "free" money ultimately costs the institution money, and means that researchers increasingly spend too much of their time grant-writing and not enough actually researching), while humanities folks are supposed to teach intro/core classes as cheaply as possible (even though that means diverting faculty from research to teaching and/or supervising contingent faculty who do the teaching).

  4. I couldn't agree more that our science majors need a good liberal arts background, if for no other reason than that they learn to write. But oh how I wish our general education program was anything more than a mickey-mouse feel-good waste of time. So few courses are taught with any real workload, any intellectual difficulty, any tough grading...

    It's not just a waste of time - it actively makes our undergrads think that the humanties isn't work studying. It's actually decreasing their appreciation for the liberal arts.

  5. I agree. I have a BS in a science and an English minor. When I was looking for a grad school, I was shocked at the number of prof's that were bewildered that I would go through the trouble of getting an English minor. Even as an undergrad I was aware of the amount of writing that happens for a scientist (someone has to write those papers and grants).

    Students do need a good background in writing and analysis of reading material. Sadly, I think most Comp profs/teachers are over-worked, and dealing with students that just don't care.


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