Are college-bound students selecting the right academic major? Many high school students nationwide are beginning to wring their hands over their future and the difficult decision of choosing the right school along with a primary field of study or major. Our recommendation: Stop wringing and start exploring!
No doubt, many students are being encouraged by parents, family, and friends to pursue degrees that emphasize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—STEM fields. The career outcomes for students in STEM are potentially very high, and “finding a good job” remains one of the key reasons for attending college. But college is also about personal growth, reflection, and exposure to new ideas.
College ought to help students learn how to work and interact with people from different backgrounds, cultures and belief systems. And college should help students develop the leadership, communication and critical thinking skills that will empower them to be successful professionals, engaged citizens and well-rounded individuals. The development of these skills can occur in the study of any field, but lies at the heart of many non-STEM disciplines, such as political science, economics, history, philosophy, music, literature, or international studies, to name a few. These are fields that require students to think deeply and critically about the social, cultural, political, ethical, and aesthetic contexts that make us human and define how we live, work, play, and interact with one another.
These skills may be more beneficial to career development than many would believe. Recent surveys of business executives and hiring managers identify the following skills as most important for their employees: communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, collaboration, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. These same executives, especially in technology-related firms, believe that students are falling short with respect to their performance in these essential skills, according to the study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Aside from improving employment outcomes, another purpose of higher education is to equip the next generation with the capabilities and confidence to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
We believe these problems cannot be solved by technology alone. Alleviating poverty, halting climate change, converting to renewable energy, eradicating communicable disease, provisioning of clean water, and improving physical and digital security will require thinkers and doers who understand the multiple, interdisciplinary dimensions of these problems—especially their human and policy aspects. In addition, society is facing a different challenge at this moment in time. Nationalism and discord are on the rise, with more citizens retreating into their own echo chambers, watching cable news channels that broadcast entertainment rather than unbiased news.
Where are we headed? What are the likely consequences? To help us answer these questions, we had better continue to produce historians, psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists. To borrow from John Seely Brown, our Spring 2019 commencement speaker, these graduates are better at “reading” the future. But they can’t do it alone. We have a shared responsibility to understand where the Internet, social media, and other technologies are taking us. So, for multiple reasons, we believe that STEM students should actively pursue non-STEM coursework. But we are just as strong in our belief that non-STEM students should engage deeply in the STEM disciplines. Students pursuing social sciences and humanities degrees ought to expand their skills in digital literacy, data analytics, and computational thinking.
We even encourage our liberal arts students to explore introductory courses in engineering or computer science to give them an understanding of the technological underpinnings of society and an appreciation for how these STEM disciplines approach problem-solving. Our recommendation for all students is to seek opportunities where the various disciplines can be integrated—whether through coursework, projects, internships, co-op assignments with companies, research, or community work. It is important to engage in projects and problems that require both technical and non-technical modes of thinking, and interaction with people from many different backgrounds and cultures.
At a university with “technology” in its name, we meet parents who are concerned that their daughter or son wishes to major in the liberal arts. Our advice is always that their student should choose a major for which they have a high level of passion, for it is passion that ignites learning. We also stress the importance of incorporating synthesis, as well as analysis, within a college education.
By synthesis, we mean creation and innovation (putting creativity into action). Within an academic setting, creation, innovation, and “making” can occur in every field, whether it be writing a poem or short story, choreographing a dance, composing a piece of music, advancing a new scientific hypothesis, developing a new government policy, designing a new piece of technology, creating a social movement, or launching a startup company.
The point is that every student can be involved in creating things that never before existed, and then putting those concepts into motion, in an effort to improve the world. If the development of this mindset and the leadership to bring new ideas to fruition are an intentional part of the education of every student, then these graduates will be especially well-prepared to create the future, no matter what they study.
David Munson is president, and James Winebrake is dean of the College of Liberal Arts, at Rochester Institute of Technology.