Everyone, from oil execs to President Obama, has called for stronger education in STEM. After all, there’s a shortage of people prepared for the tech and engineering jobs crucial for our economy’s well-being.
But those employed in STEM fields are sometimes the strongest advocates for education in the humanities.
“Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science,” wrote Loretta Jackson-Hayes in her recent Washington Post op-ed. The chemist and professor issued a call for liberal arts training alongside STEM skill building.
Her viewpoint is shared by many of tech’s trailblazers. Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”
The communication skills fostered by a liberal arts education are invaluable in STEM careers, Jackson-Hayes said. She has to be able to clearly articulate her research in journal articles, and she brings her chemistry students to conferences where they must effectively and compellingly describe their work.
Jackson-Hayes quoted David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University: “‘Many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.’” The lack of communication skills among STEM professionals could breed a vicious cycle. Without interesting or clear writing about the sciences, students may not be inspired to pursue the subjects.
Some graduate institutions in STEM fields are slowly embracing the logic of interdisciplinary learning. In 1987, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai began guaranteeing admission to high-performing college sophomores studying humanities and social sciences. The students in the experiment, who weren’t required to take premed courses or the MCAT, ended up doing as well as the typical students at the med school. And starting this year, all prospective doctors will take a revamped version of the MCAT with new questions on population health, ethics, and psychology. Whether a student ends up as a heart surgeon or a podiatrist, knowledge in these areas is important for anyone who works with people under sensitive circumstances. A liberal arts education based on questioning, critical thinking, and social awareness helps develop empathetic and compassionate professionals.
Jackson-Hayes, like Jobs, is clearly not dismissing the recent emphasis on STEM education. She’s simply cautioning against promoting it exclusively, or to the detriment of creativity.
We’ve written on the value of turning STEM into STEAM (the “A” stands for “art”). The maker movement is emblematic of this harmony. Maker education teaches technology skills—with a heavy dose of tinkering, experimentation, and creativity. We’re also proponents of design thinking in schools, where students are encouraged to solve complex problems while tuning into the desires and needs of the people who will use them.
In Pittsburgh, many initiatives and schools have long taken an interdisciplinary approach to learning, melding tech and science education with the arts to build critical and systems thinking skills. Hear Me combines tech tools with storytelling, so youth participants can get decision makers to listen to them. At the Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, teens have open and guided access to an array of digital tools and a studio space. The Institute of Play brings game design to the classroom, because dull, standardized STEM lessons don’t cultivate an engaged and innovative citizenry or workforce.
STEM education, whether in elementary schools or graduate institutions, can open its arms to the liberal arts without sacrificing any of the skill building necessary for our future workforce.