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[flagged] We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training (washingtonpost.com)
48 points by wyclif on Feb 19, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

From the editorial: In business and at every level of government, we hear how important it is to graduate more students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, as our nation’s competitiveness depends on it.

Very good! You've given a reason, but it's based on an argument from authority: BUSINESS and GOVERNMENT say the nation needs more STEM people. I find that entire type of argument unconvincing. Businesses usually say they need more people with some quality when they find the existing people with that quality are too expensive. As an employee, if I had a quality in demand, I'd seek to keep the supply of people with that quality as low as possible. Lawyers and doctors do that (in the USA) why can't STEM people?

That's to say: I'm unconvinced.

It's funny that you mention doctors and lawyers, because the way doctors and lawyers artificially keep their numbers small has earned them a very bad reputation among the general populace. They aren't doing it for quality either. They have their own interests in mind (just like businesses do in the STEM case) and they are willing to deny other people the same opportunities in order to get paid more.

My parents are actually doctors and we used to get in debates about this all the time. They of course follow the party line about how an influx into the medical field would lower quality of service. But of course they say that because they want their own earning potential to remain very high.

And what do businesses say when they actually need people with some quality? It is usually a natural consequence of your skills being in high demand that you'll be able to ask for a higher salary. Business may be saying that only because those are expensive as you charge, but if however they are actually in need of certain skills those would probably be expensive just the same.

Considering that 1)Scientific knowledge is so important for everything in our global society and 2)The US stats in science education are below those in other developed economies, I'd say probably the demand is real.

Ironically, the main example is of a chemistry student who knows how to program.

I actually do agree with the article, I just think it is hopelessly vague. As a math major who frequently programs and has a great interest in chemistry in physics, it is not "liberal arts" that I find helpful, but philosophy, ethics, and things that were, until recently, considered sciences as well. (I love the metaphysical ramifications of Godel because my favorite part of philosophy is epistemology)

Analyzing a poem or learning about diversity or whathaveyou won't help me - not necesarily because it can't but because liberal arts education at the undergraduate level is hopelessly useless. There are two extremes I see in it: hopeless rigidity (you can't end a sentence with a preposition or your interpretation of this piece is wrong because I disagree with it) and incompetent formlessness where every opinion is valid and has merit - even when it doesn't.

It is too rare that I see education that accepts diversity of opinion while maintaining rigour in anything.

Indeed, math was also once considered to be a liberal art.

I have two minors in liberal arts fields in addition to a CS degree (a BS) and the main reaction they've ever engendered is curiosity at how the minors are totally unrelated to a CS major. (IE there's a subtext of "why aren't your minor minors in math or science?" Because I guess they should be, or something?)

Even more annoying is the frequent assumption that if a person works with computers it's inconceivable that they might have a clue about design, writing, or art.

From undergrad, I have a double major in East Asian Studies (concentration on Japan) and Aerospace Engineering. I no longer bother trying to explain the simple truth (they are both very interesting fields!) because no one seems to believe it possible for someone to be interested in both these things at the same time. Now, I just mention whichever major is more relevant to the conversation or job I am applying for etc.

I get this a lot. I have a Masters and several minors in nothing but Liberal Arts. But I work in CS at a fairly high level. It just blows people mind who have a hard time seeing how they can possibly ever relate to one another. To me they're all the same. I'm drawn and willing to learn whatever that interests me. If anything, I've always felt that I can learn CS on my own (which I did) but I wouldn't be able to learn Liberal Arts stuff if I wasn't exposed to it in a classroom environment.

I've gotten those same questions, but never felt a negative subtext. I've always considered the question an easy way to start a conversation about versatility.

It's negative when people start to pigeonhole you and tell you you can't do certain things because you're not suppose to know how.

The only constant at job interviews for me is the question: "So you majored in music...Why programming?"

As time goes on it becomes more and more irritating to respond to that question, although I suppose given someone's resume and told to interview them for a job, it's a natural starting place.

Combinatorial creativity is a very real thing. So why limit yourself to one intellectual pursuit (whether that's liberal arts, STEM, teaching, etc)? This article could be reversed and still make sense - We need more liberal arts majors with STEM training.

We need more people with a broad, diverse education. Because those people make better people.

I completely agree that this is beneficial for both government and business leaders / innovators, but it's hard to justify for entry level employment, which most people are seeking post-undergraduate / graduate school.

You run the risk of sacrificing depth for breadth. With finite educational resources (time and money in real dollars that are likely borrowed), most people are attempting to maximize their earning potential post-graduation.

Part of the problem is that profit seeking companies don't favor the renaissance man / woman because they need people down in the trenches, implementing the mundane details of the grand ideas dreamt up by innovators. The reality is that most people are not a da Vinci or Jobs (both would have made significant contributions to society without diverse educations--there's likely no shortage of examples of hyper-focused authors, scientists, artists, etc. who were equally successful).

Although I'm not a huge fan of argument by personal anecdote I think it applies here. As an undergraduate engineering student, I spent a large portion of my educational resources, 20-50% of my time / energy, on policy debate [1]. Each year, I intensely researched, organized, presented, and actively debated international politics, economics, philosophy, sociology, and literary criticism in the context of a specific topic. At the conclusion of each year, I could have written a thesis on a relevant subset of each topic--I say this as someone who has written and defended an engineering thesis. Post-graduation, however, I find myself working for an engineering firm, doing engineering work. During the interview and continuing to this day (4+ years later), no one cares how much I know about West Africa agricultural problems, biopolitics, feminism, Ex parte Quirin, or the AUMF. It's simply not relevant to work I do. I would love a job that uses all of my interests and talents, but, especially in this case, that seems unlikely. "Looking for candidate with strong background in Structural Dynamics, Aeroelasticity, Feminism, and Middle Eastern politics!" Maybe I'm just not creative enough.

Am I well read? Sure. Do I sound intelligent over a beer or two? Absolutely. Am I a contributing member of a well-informed electorate? You betcha! But would that time / effort been better spent on engineering-specific extracurricular activities? I know what the hiring manager at my company and my boss would probably tell you.

Sure I retained the research, organization, presentation, and public speaking skills, but they're really only marginally relevant to my current work. I also would have probably developed those skills if I was involved in DBF [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Policy_debate

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design/Build/Fly

I'd like to mention that my alma mater (The University of Texas at Austin) has an honors program (called Plan II) that allows (and encourages) students to major in both liberal arts and other, often technical fields: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/progs/plan2/admission/application...

My particular program combined liberal arts and engineering and had institutional support and a student group to help.

Of course, many other students still thought we were crazy to do both. I'm glad I did. Many of my Plan II instructors did a better job of teaching critical thinking and scholarship than most of my engineering professors.

None of these arguments are very moving. The best argument of the article is that it's good to learn programming even if your interests are in the hard sciences. But computer science is a STEM field. STEM majors already cross-train in other STEM disciplines because it's useful and helps give them a well-rounded education.

Why not make liberal arts students, who are the ones who can't get jobs and whose educations aren't doing much for society, take science classes? They're the ones who end up working at Starbucks. That's the part of the education system that's _broken_, but we're supposed to ask the most productive part of education to follow suit?

"Why not make liberal arts students, who are the ones who can't get jobs..."

It's not really that simple. Recent liberal arts graduates have about the same unemployment rate as recent computer science and maths graduates. Physical science graduates have a much better chance of finding a job, but so do education majors.[1] And there isn't a big glut of unfilled STEM jobs which would be available to these liberal arts students if they just took STEM courses.[2] The idea that the liberal arts are "broken" and STEM is "productive" isn't supported by the evidence.

[1]: https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/HardTimes2015-... [2]: http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/the-stem-crisis-i...

Your "evidence" is underwhelming, I don't really understand the point you're trying to make. My argument wasn't based on the "STEM crisis" so debunking it is irrelevant. If you look at figure 1 of your Georgetown link it seems clear that STEM degrees correlate with lower unemployment, liberal arts with higher unemployment.

You don't get to just cherry-pick the easy comparisons. Your link suggests technical educations have, as a whole, lower unemployment. In addition to that, average salaries for recent STEM grads are 25-50% higher than their liberal arts counterparts.

Maybe it's not fair of me to say that one is awesome and the other is horrible, but if we're going to make one of them more like the other it seems clear which one is falling behind.

"Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, credits her degree in philosophy and medieval history in helping her be the first woman to lead a high-tech Fortune 20 corporation."

Yeah, allot of good she did to HP. Hewlett & Packard were engineers.

I'm not too familiar with her case. Was her subpar performance caused by her lack of technical education?

Not nessicerily, but she turned a respected test and measurement company into a purveyor of garbage PCs and printers.

Though I never got a degree, I did take a LOT of history on the opposite side of the campus from the CS building. (There were a lot more women on that side of the campus as well, which was nice).

History was tons of fun, and remains one of my favorite types of reading to this day.

More practically, I highly recommend taking a number of courses on writing, because one of the things you'll need to do in your great CS career is communicate effectively to people, up and down your management chain, and to customers. Hell, good writing skills come into play when you're filling-in bug reports.

Coding is just a really specialized type of writing. A lot of the principles of writing and editing prose well equally apply to code.

> Coding is just a really specialized type of writing

.. for the attention of a single audience, the compiler. The compiler demands accuracy and completeness yet also provides patient, useful and virtually infinite feedback to guide the writer. That's not typical of human audiences!

Creating prose for human audiences is challenging and yet is an essential skill in the corporate world.

A two-minute elevator pitch to a C-level officer is going to be a lot different than notes on a bug report. But I've worked with many people who can't make that context-switch and just overwhelm their audience with irrelevant details.

That's one of the interesting aspects of an education in history: analyse inputs, synthesise, evaluate and only output what is relevant to the argument.

Good code has to be good on a number of different axis:

- Understandability and maintainability. People are going to toss your code if it's bad. If the stuff you write is consistently bad, they're going to toss you.

- Syntax, as enforced by the compiler.

- Functional. Many sub-axis here, including efficiency, usability, resilience to failure, number of bugs, and so on.

... and so on.

Coding is refactoring. Writing is rewriting. Doing anything well is doing it again until it is done.

A good friend of mine, John "Munch" Paulson, maintained: "Good code is not written. Good code is re-written."

Glad to see another historian here. History is fascinating to me.

It's called STEAM. There's a movement in education - http://www.risd.edu/About/STEM_to_STEAM/

Is anything left out of this movement? What separates STEAM from just... education?

It's project based, something you don't normally see in public education. It focuses on integrating the disciplines. Students don't have a science course, then a math course, then a writing course. Students are given a problem to solve that cuts across disciplines and have to use different disciplines to solve the problem.

The concept has been around forever, but modern education has put disciplines into silos. STEAM is trying to reintegrate things.

Lawyers, politics, education...

PE and Home Econ.

While I certainly agree that STEM students with a background in humanities would be valuable, we still need to ask if this is a rational career path for someone with this kind of ability.

Medicine is also a good career choice for academically talented students with strength in both humanities and science. To get these students over to STEM you'll need to offer career prospects, pay, stability, and prestige comparable to dermatology or radiology.

In short, I can see why STEM employers would want these students, but the students have better options than STEM.

For what it's worth, I did a Liberal Arts degree, a Business degree and ended up working in IT. Liberal arts came first and Business came second.

Liberal arts thoroughly enriched my understanding of the world when coupled with business (particularly the economics aspects of it). I use both when managing clients and projects in my IT job. I encourage all students to become multi-disciplinary even if you think your future focus will be only in one area.

What we need to do is to discern between education and training. Once we do that, we can begin to elevate the vocational back to a place where it's valued, and institutions dedicated to education can get back to it and not have it's resources diverted to a task outside the charter of education. I look forward to engaging in the debate of the line between the two.

Could you elaborate on the distinction between education and training and why you think a single institution should not do both? I think colleges should teach things that are things that are directly applicable to a job as well as things that are not.

First, when I say education, I mean Liberal Arts education. In this, I would include the humanities, and pure maths. The difference could be found in the approach to technical skills. For example, when I was a student of Attic Greek, our teacher liked to point out that our technical mastery of English grammar would serve us well if we chose a career in publishing. The acquiring of this technical skill was a side-effect of our pursuit, the study of Attic Greek, not the point of it. In vocational training, the entire point is in the acquiring of technical skill. I believe this is as important, and must be a separate pursuit so that it gets the resources it needs. A STEM example would be the difference between how engineering is treated in Canada, versus the U.S. After an education of engineering theory, a student in Canada is then qualified to enter into an apprenticeship where they then have the opportunity to become a qualified engineer, after their vocational training is completed. In the U.S., there's not as much discernment between theory and praxis, and one may not be entirely sure of receiving the right amount of each. The official certification one receives in Canada seems to signal the valuing of vocational training. Receiving an education in theory as a pre-requisite signals the value of theory.

Lenders need to start charging hire interest rate for loans made to non-STEM majors. Those loans are more risky. I know I will get flack for this but I believe it will be good policy.

What exactly is she suggesting we do about it?

I myself have a Bachelor of Arts in Physics, from UC Santa Cruz. I regard the courses I took in history, anthropology and social psychology to be invaluable to my work as a coder.

I would love to hear any concrete examples you might have.

I can produce some but not just now as I have not been feeling well.

But consider that software may be executed by machines, but it is written by humans. I once read a fascinating UCSC doctoral dissertation by an anthropologist who studied High Energy Physicists at SLAC.

Working at Apple was just like that for me. I didn't just write code, I studied my fellow employees.

>>thinkers who know to consider chemistry’s impact on society and the environment.

I would rather we had chemistry that could impact the environment instead of thinkers who philosophized over its impact.

There might be an interesting argument about how liberal arts eduction contributes to STEM, or perhaps that STEM has low standards and anybody can decide to be a biologists on a whim, but the more interesting arguments are not made by the article. Perhaps the author could use an extra English class.

How about:

A scientist trained in the liberal arts has another huge advantage: writing ability.

It might not be an "interesting" argument, but I remember my best college professor expressly lamenting that engineering students no longer knew how to write.

I also remember discovering the steady decline in the quality of datasheet & manual technical writing, starting somewhere in the late 80's.

Writing is quite important in software development, especially on open-source projects where much communication occurs via email and bug tracker. With the glut of projects competing for attention, copywriting ability can be important in attracting other developers to a project.

>>STEM has low standards and anybody can decide to be a biologists on a whim

I'm not following... what do you mean by biologist? As far as I've been informed (perhaps biased by the difficult job market of recent years) it is VERY difficult to find actual jobs doing meaningful biology work.

>> VERY difficult to find actual jobs doing meaningful biology work.

Depends what you mean by meaningful. My department the EE/CS labs have ~5 people, the biology labs have double. Cells need to grow, protocols can take days. Most people I know in biology are doing some form of technician work. Indeed an undergrad can come in to a biology lab and become a biologist on a whim, I even know many highschool students who are productive with a week of training - I don't know any in remote sensing. So you are correct.

[Looks my rep is gonna take hit, but I work with these people every day, so w/e]

Yeah, you're right. I mean, anyone who can follow basic instructions is part of the field, just like a 15 years old editing a WordPress config file is a Computer Engineer, right?

In all seriousness, there is a big difference between doing lab work, which can absolutely be done by high schoolers, and skilled, technical work in the biological / chemical fields. As pa5tabear said, there just aren't as many jobs out there for the skilled biologists or chemists, which is one reason you can usually see people with degrees doing jobs which they are "overqualified" for.

> Indeed an undergrad can come in to a biology lab and become a biologist on a whim, I even know many highschool students who are productive with a week of training

Are these people getting paid?

I guess burger flipping experience makes you a chef, too?


I knew exactly the kind of arguments I'd see on this thread. The same 'hurr durr STEM > liberal arts' I see on Reddit and elsewhere.

It's time we moved beyond a confrontational, antagonistic relationship between these two most fundamental pursuits of study.

There's a very good reason why this argument comes up again and again.

STEM disciplines are in the analytic philosophy tradition (at least the ones that are any good). For the most part, liberal arts are in the continental philosophy tradition (this wasn't always the case).

There can be no peace, or even understanding between the two schools of thought.

It's closer to say that the analytic philosophy tradition grew out of STEM (especially M) roots, via people like Russel and Whitehead. "Analytic philosophy" is a phenomenon of the 20th century, while STEM fields go back anywhere from centuries to millenia.

I do agree that the current (and hopefully transient) dominance of continental philosophy in the liberal arts makes it more difficult for people in those areas to grasp STEM fields, and would furthermore say that since "STEM people need more liberal arts training!" has been the call for my entire decades-long career (and likely before) there is unlikely to ever be anything that satisfies people. I've been in grad courses in philosophy where a solid minority of students were from the sciences, but never seen more than one or two people (always from philosophy) even in undergrad physics classes.

It's time to turn things around and say, "Liberal arts people need more STEM training! No one should be able to graduate from university who doesn't have at least some grounding in math, computing and a science." Unfortunately, if you extend this requirement beyond "physics for poets" the graduation rate drops to nearly zero, despite there being English, music, philosophy and history majors out there who make wickedly good software developers. But they are such a tiny minority as to barely count.

Thank you for this. I always wondered why I continually "butt heads" with some of my friends when discussing philosophy-related topics. I am not well-versed (being CS) and thought it was merely due to my lack of background.

Of course - I still lack background in "continental philosophy", but this helps my understanding.

What is your definition of STEM disciplines, and what is your definition of the liberal arts?

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