Opinion Uncategorized

I am a chemist, I am a writer and whatever else I choose to be

Kamilla Hrubešová – The Falcon Post, 2017

Ten years ago, if you used the word “stem,” you were most likely talking about a part of a flower or wine glass.  Today, however, STEM — an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics — is a constant topic of conversation, especially in the educational world, about the importance of preparing students to enter competitive growing fields in industry and research.

Our education system encourages the STEM savvy of us to go into medicine or chemistry or computer science. But this comes with an unintended consequence: along with breeding the next generation of mathematicians, this way of thinking can lead students to squeeze themselves into an artificially created educational binary: the STEM people, and the Humanities people, and miss out on opportunities to use all of their potential.

I’ve never considered myself to be a STEM person. I have a long running history of citing social studies, theatre, and English as my favorite subjects, all of which fit into our definition of humanities. But does that make me a “humanities” person more than a STEM one because I happen to have liked these classes?

Recently, I was raving to my dad about how this year, I really loved my chemistry class. He responded with a level of surprise – reasonably enough, as, due to this binary, chemistry doesn’t fit with my history of loving humanitarian subjects. But who decides that chemistry should be grouped with engineering, or math? I mean, math is important in all science, but is biology more connected to mathematics than social studies or anthropology?

It’s helpful to think about subject connections and interests as inhabiting a spectrum rather than existing in two separate and independent categories. In a way, it’s just like the temperature of water from your faucet. Everyone has their preferred temperature for brushing their teeth and washing their hands. We can all agree that certain temperatures are cold and some are hot but it’s not useful to spend time categorizing the broad in-between into warmer and colder, and at a certain point it would be impossible.

The same goes for trying to taxonomize subjects into STEM and Humanities. Knowing how to code doesn’t seem crucial to being a great physicist. However, perhaps the analysis skills learned in english will carry into targeting and analyzing errors in a lab report. The problem with the STEM vs Humanities binary is it discourages those who are strong in what we call “humanities” from considering STEM as options of pursuit, because rather than recognizing the skills that will carry over into many different fields of study, we have created an artificial barrier that you can’t cross without great marks in high school calculus.

This hasn’t always been the case. Historically, many great and influential leaders were proficient in a more holistic set of skills. Take, for example, Benjamin Franklin. Not only is he known for advancing our understanding in the field of electricity, which today we would consider influential in STEM, he also was a major figure in editing and co-writing the United State’s Declaration of Independence, a quintessentially humanitarian accomplishment.

Many philosophers were also scientists: Plato, Aristotle, Galileo,Thomas Hobbes. Davinci is a great example, in addition to being a hugely celebrated artist, he was an early and important scholar of human anatomy and he even invented an early prototype of the helicopter! These renaissance men, people proficient in a variety of fields, weren’t held up in the idea of defining themselves based on their strengths in STEM fields compared to humanities fields. They simply pursued their passions and interests.

There’s no denying, that of course, there are links between the subjects encompassed within the STEM and humanities fields. If you want to be a physicist or an engineer, you’ve just got to be good at math. But in reality, all subjects that relate are interconnected and important. The point I’m trying to make is that that labeling subjects STEM and Humanities excludes too many people and consequently creates single minded views of what a student’s potential could be.

And there are enough fields; economics, psychology, philosophy.., that fit into both, and people! who have interests in both STEM and humanities and elsewhere, that it’s detrimental to educating holistically interested world citizens to force these categories onto people. We don’t expect all writers to be great historians, so why should the student who has the potential to be an amazing biomedical engineer be discouraged because trigonometry doesn’t come naturally to them? And similarly, shouldn’t we be encouraging curiosity and exploration, regardless of if someone comes off as a “stem” or “humanities” person?

We consider music to be part of the humanities, but learning about mathematical harmonic functions will probably be more beneficial to the student studying violin than learning about early civilizations in social studies, yet that same course would aid an aspiring biologist. But as a world citizen, that violinist could and should still take the early civilizations course, because, why not? If society wants to ensure students are well rounded and versatile, it needs to stop pigeonholing them into being STEM or Humanities people.

There has been some improvement in recent years. The STEM to STEAM movement, one that hopes to include arts among traditional stem fields, is making strides spreading the value of multi-subject abilities. MIT, a notoriously STEM-aimed university, recently posted an article saying “the world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory, workbench, or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale.” It’s great that some in the worlds of education and employment are beginning to recognize the worth of multifaceted students, but it’s up to all of us to break down these artificial barriers and create a system of broad based education.

Nobody wants to miss out on the potential creator of the medicine that could save their lives because high school social studies was easier for them than physics, and they subsequently believed they were a humanities person, and couldn’t possibly get involved with science. Don’t let the next great politician lose their shot because they liked computer class more than English. Of course, if you love something, pursue it. That’s the goal! Just don’t let the artificial barriers between STEM and humanities get in the way of what could be.

There’s no scientific reason or educational advantage to labeling people “STEM” or “Humanities”, simply because it might steer them to the courses and careers that line up with the semi-arbitrarily grouped subjects that fit within their professed personality type. Encourage students to take the classes they love and are interested in, and steer them to the ones that will help them with what they want to do. Humanities and STEM are so intertwined not only in the fields themselves but in the skills you need to succeed in them, critical thinking, analysis skills, problem solving.
We need to teach individuals, not just create molds that each student should fit into one way or another. My mother is a computer scientist who loves literature. My best friend is fascinated by history but wants to go into finance. My dad shouldn’t be surprised that I like science just because I also like English and Social Studies. The fluidity of personality should not be confined by an arbitrary binary. I am a chemist, I am a writer, I am a historian, I am an artist and I don’t have to choose.

©  Galia Newberger – The Falcon Post, 2017