To STEM or not to STEM? That is not the question

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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!

David Munson

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. 

James Winebrake

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.

5 thoughts on “To STEM or not to STEM? That is not the question

  1. Here is a book that everyone interested in promoting and expanding Rochester and it’s economy should read. Entitled “Jumpstarting America” the book details the failings of organizations such as COMIDA to properly enhance and promote small city economies through tax giveaways and a strategy that works better. We ALREADY HAVE THE FOUNDATION to make this strategy work. Interestingly enough Rochester rates as the Number 1 economy that could be influenced by this book. Everything we do in terms of STEM and local investment should be viewed through the eyes of whether it coincides with the strategies recommended here:

  2. I truly hope or educational institutions can deliver on this statement from the article:
    “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.”

    We cannot have teachers regurgitating current beliefs and thought processes as gospel. I still laugh at the finance professors I had in college who claimed that leveraging to the hilt was best for business. We all know how that wound up.

    I also want to see graduates entering the workforce to understand that their education has only prepared them in part for working in the world. They shouldn’t expect to be good managers or executives without experience in various levels and aspects of a business. We have too many managers who don’t understand the basics of how their organizations work making decision that hurt themselves and others in the long run because they have no clue about the nitty gritty dynamics of how things work or the effort needed.

  3. While I agree totally with this, the piece leaves out another major option to explore: Going into a trade rather than college. This is equally relevant to STEM and the liberal arts aspect. Tradespeople these days are required to have highly trained technical skills that include most aspects of STEM education, albeit in a more targeted skillset. And design skills generally apply to trades also, especially in building trades.
    Rochester is a university town yet we desperately need an advanced trades school, that might possibly leverage the STEM and arts training offered by the universities. It is time to stop siloing ‘higher’ education from other skills development. Both are critical and both offer extensive career options.

    • And as the current generation of trades retires – the concentration on ONLY graduating kids into STEM careers is making it difficult for manufacturers and contractors to recruit, train and hire talent. Instead kids end up in massive debt in careers they don’t want and are badly prepared for. All the tech in the world is probably not going to replace your plumber or electrician or even CNC machine operator any time soon.

      • STEM subject matter is oftentimes taught asymmetrically so it’s real world applications are masked.Rather than less STEM,I am a strong advocate of STEM subject matter.For example ,the simplest concepts such as positive and negative numbers teaches us how to improve our human relation skills because we know that a-8+a-8is a -16.This informs us that to respond to negativity with negativity simply enlarges negativity whether in the workplace and /or in a marriage.Similarly ,derivatives teach us to be careful in our choices since we know that we cannot distinguish a maxima from a minima until after we have made a change.Chemistry teaches us to relate human personalities in our workplaces to the elements and to limit contact with those “elements”which,when combined with the characteristics of our element,will create combustion.Accordingly,it is STEM subject matter that allows us to enter these other disciplines with a knowledge base that supports excellence.

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