A Case Against the STEM Rush

Lior Shamir, a computer scientist who's actively participated in efforts to increase participation in STEM fields, now wonders if she's been on the wrong side.

February 3, 2020
 
 
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In the past decade, governments and private foundations have been investing substantial resources in efforts to attract more students to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines and, consequently, STEM careers. They’ve provided numerous scholarships for students and generous funding to explore interventions to help encourage students to take the STEM path.

Meanwhile, the number of students in the liberal arts has been declining sharply, a drop that has stimulated a reduction in the number of faculty lines and other resources. Humanities programs are closing every year, and if that trend continues, the liberal art disciplines might even cease to exist as mainstream academic programs.

For several years, I have been an active participant in the efforts to increase the participation in STEM. I’ve taken part in scholarly activities aimed at identifying the most effective ways to attract students to STEM, often at the expense of other disciplines, mainly the humanities and the social sciences. Obviously, I’ve not been doing it all by myself but as a part of a large, passionate crowd of STEM educators, researchers and administrators, getting together at academic meetings to exchange our best practices and proven interventions to attract more students to STEM. The theme of those academic meetings has been rather consistent: we must reach out to those lost souls who chose to study the humanities or social sciences and show them the light of STEM.

But as time has passed, and the deeper and more sophisticated the interventions have become, I’ve also begun to realize that I might be on the wrong side. During my attempts to understand the disciplines I was expected to encourage students to avoid, I was exposed to the many sides of the social sciences and the liberal arts that I was not aware of. I learned that scholarly questions can also be approached in ways that do not necessarily have to come down to a number and a P value, a formal proof and a protocol that can be replicated. I also learned that these paradigms can be effective in many cases where the hard sciences do not always have answers -- questions related to social justice or inclusion of underrepresented minorities. The lab mind-set comfort zone that I believed to be the only way in which the universe could be understood was replaced with awareness that we can approach questions in other ways and through other methods that aren’t necessarily part of the STEM toolbox.

In fact, the more I learned about the liberal arts, the more my passion to participate in the missionary effort of converting students from the humanities and social sciences to STEM declined. As a scientist and engineer, I became concerned about the deterioration of the liberal arts and started to fear a world dominated solely by scientists and engineers. We must keep in mind that the strength of society depends not merely on its wealth and technological competitive edge but also on its ability to serve all its citizens equitably and help them become contributing members. The hard sciences alone cannot accomplish that mission.

The future and sustainability of the liberal arts surely depend on the opportunities that the job market can offer to its current and future graduates. The rising costs of higher education also have a substantial impact on disciplines that are considered less competitive in terms of their return for the investment. But the sciences and engineering can also have a major role in preserving and strengthening the liberal arts.

Among other things, technology that integrates the liberal arts and the hard sciences can modernize research and education in the humanities. Scholars can, for instance, use analytics to study human creation in a fashion that was not possible in the pre-information era. They can assess literature, history or art by using mathematical and computational tools, while not compromising their liberal arts foundations. In that sense, the potential impact of analytics on the liberal arts can be compared to that of the invention of the telescope on astronomy or the invention of the microscope on biology. Analytics allows us to study the same subjects, and use the same liberal arts foundations, yet with a much higher level of detail.

For instance, using fractal analysis and elements from machine vision, we can profile the art of Jackson Pollock and identify painters that influenced his work, such as Vincent van Gogh. Using automatic sentiment analysis, we can evaluate the emotions expressed in thousands of songs and use that information to learn about the impact of national or personal events on the songs and songwriters -- or identify emotions that are consistently expressed when certain topics are mentioned.

Such integration can contemporize the liberal arts and attract students who might not have otherwise considered the humanities as a major. The skills acquired through that process can be more relevant to the current and future job market. Educational activities such as analysis of literature using computational tools in a lab-like environment can also be more appealing to students who were born into the information era. They might find the use of technology more engaging than educational methods like traditional patronage or iconographic analysis done as part of a lecture or class discussion.

But the integration of the sciences and the liberal arts needs must occur in both directions. Just as much as the liberal arts can benefit from adopting the use of digital technologies, the engineering and computing sciences can benefit from the exposure to the liberal arts. We should remind ourselves that computers do not just shape our economy but also our culture and society. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the past, or Mark Zuckerberg in the present, have a substantial impact on the way our culture develops. Exposure of computer scientists to the humanities and social sciences can thus have broad societal and cultural impacts, which we might depend on as society.

Aggressive STEM campaigns seem to indeed achieve their goals: while the total number of students in the country has been in decline since 2011, the number of students in science and engineering fields has been slightly increasing. But as society, we cannot afford to lose the liberal arts or to not take action as the social sciences grow weaker. Integrating the humanities with science and engineering can revive the liberal arts and secure their existence as mainstream disciplines that are vital to the well-being of our society and culture, now and into the future.

That, however, can only be done through a mutual respect between disciplines, based on the understanding that the humanities foundations must be preserved, and without an attempt to reshape or reinvent the liberal arts and social sciences as quantitative “hard science” disciplines.

Bio

Lior Shamir is an associate professor of computer science at Kansas State University.

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