Valerie Barr, “STEM and Humanities: It Isn’t Either-Or”

I think of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and humanities as being the bookends of a quality education. Everyone needs exposure to and experience with both, or their education is incomplete and inadequate. Why do I think this?

There’s an interesting tension developing across the academic landscape these days. And it is playing out in industry as well. There’s a basic statement being made that runs something like this: “we have a crisis brewing, there are not enough scientists and engineers, we need everyone to go into the STEM disciplines. Besides, since that’s where all the jobs are, we should steer our children in that direction. The humanities are an ‘unnecessary indulgence’”.

We can see this reflected, as well, in statements by various government officials, at least at the state level. For example, Rick Scott, Governor of Florida, said that tax dollars should not be spent to educate people in the humanities and social sciences, but only be spent on science and high-tech studies.

We do ourselves a huge disservice if we write off the humanities. And those of us in STEM fields should not allow political figures, state departments of education, superintendents, or college and university presidents to pit us against the humanities. In some ways we can see this as a fundamental left brain – right brain issue.

On the STEM side, we want to help students develop the scientific, computational, and engineering knowledge to logically solve interesting problems. We want the students of today to become the problem solvers of tomorrow, we want them to learn how to apply the constant stream of technological developments and scientific discoveries to healthcare and sustainability and a host of other areas. But where does the creative aha moment come from? What makes someone decide that a problem exists? Or that a problem might be interesting to solve? Or that the solution might make a significant difference to people’s lives? Or that the mashup of two areas might turn into a new powerful solution mechanism? What leads a medical school instructor to bring artists and art historians into the classroom in order to improve the observation skills of new doctors? What has motivated the explosion of work in visualization, which every day empowers deeper understanding of the vast amounts of data that can now be processed by computers? We need the humanities for these leaps. Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College, recently argued that we have to reaffirm a commitment to develop humanistic tradition in ways that bridge scholarship with enduring questions. More simply, I would say that we need to provide a well rounded education so that those who excel in STEM understand that there are non-technical considerations that should guide their work, and those who study humanities understand that there are powerful problem solving mechanisms and tools that can open up new avenues of application for their knowledge. We need those with strength in the humanities to feel comfortable talking with those who have strength in STEM, and vice versa. This isn’t either-or, we have to expose students to both.

Rather than allowing ourselves to be divided, at every level we should be making the argument that “the other side” is a vital component to what we are trying to do with our students. Given the skewed state of the economy right now, the burden is even greater on those of us in STEM fields to argue for the importance of the humanities.

Valerie Barr is Chair of the Computer Science Dept., Union College, Schenectady, NY. She is co-chair of the Women’s Council of the Association of Computing Machinery, and on the board of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). This post originally appeared on the CSTA blog and is re-posted with permission of CSTA.

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