Jawhari: On rethinking the size of our STEM

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National academics, for the past decade, have been characterized by a conscious, if not combative, effort to boost the size of the American STEM—that is, our science, technology, engineering and mathematics curricula.

As an institution for higher learning, Case Western Reserve University is a small utopia for these disciplines and has played its part. Affectionately termed a nerdy science school by those away and at home, CWRU proudly trots hundreds of engineers and scientists across the stage each year. Possibly more comforting than the framed diploma is the prospect of employment, in the First Destination Survey for the Class of 2015, published by the CWRU Career Center, the median starting salary range for engineers was $60,000 to $65,000. This figure is almost twice as much as the median salary for those who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences.

The pay gap may be a statistic on paper, but I’ve witnessed it in my close circle of friends. The philosophy major who spent nights awake writing and revising her thesis on Nietzsche now scribbles first names on paper cups at Starbucks. The gifted violinist who trekked across campus for orchestra rehearsals is now an insurance agent with Progressive Corporation.

The push for scientists and engineers is neither imagined nor accidental—federal interests in STEM have a number of implications. We have repeatedly underperformed against our international counterparts, and despite recent efforts as a nation to improve, we continue to lag behind other countries in these subjects. Pew Research Center published an updated achievement chart in February 2015, showing Americans falling far behind Singapore, Vietnam, Germany, Taiwan and Poland, to name just a few in the interest of sensitivity.

Back in 2006, one of the recommendations from the United States National Academies was to “increase America’s talent pool by improving K-12 science and mathematics education.” The State of the Union Address delivered that same year called for increased funding for research and development programs and STEM graduates, a course of action termed the “American Competitiveness Initiative.”

Though federal investment in STEM branches from kindergartners to graduate students, research continues to back the need for a gung-ho effort on the part of elementary educators. Or, possibly, if we can somehow introduce engineering concepts in the bassinet. A paper in Educational Researcher titled “Science Achievement Gaps Begin Very Early” surveyed over 7,700 children and found that kindergarten general knowledge could predict science achievement from third to eighth grade. This essentially means that the more our kids know as tiny toddlers, the more science they’ll be able to learn as lanky middle schoolers. Another paper, “Reading Aloud to Children: the Evidence,” demonstrated that reading to kids helps them build literacy and prepare for school. I believe syntactic and semantic processes must precede a headlong dive into STEM, and not just because I am a humanities enthusiast. How do we expect children to learn hard sciences if they have yet to learn how to read?

As a culture, we are overworked, STEM-obsessed and career-focused. I find this set of characteristics forgivable, as American as apple pie and reality TV. But I worry that the result is a total dismissal of the humanities. The federal government is worried too and has all but backpedaled. In 2013, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences issued a report in favor of the humanities, titled “The Heart of the Matter”.

“Parents are not reading to their children as frequently as they once did,” the account discloses. “Humanities teachers, particularly in K-12 History, are even less well-trained than teachers of STEM subjects.”

To me, the report’s awareness is reassuring. We know that when schools cut funding, the dispensable classes on the chopping block are invariably music and art. Core curricula for pre-professional undergraduates include physics and calculus while philosophy and literature classes are treated as non-contributory electives. Our government is at least conscious of the detrimental effects of a one-track minded nation. “The Heart of the Matter” recognizes that “all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security and personal fulfillment of the American public.”

The perception that the US can succeed as a world leader by bulking up STEM disciplines comes at a cost. Students cannot excel in the hard sciences without first acquiring a strong command of language, and this command is critical for communication between disciplines or between colleagues of the same discipline.

The humanities allow students to participate in the human experience and introduce space for creative and critical thinking in a way few other fields can. On a desk free of protractors and calculators, the pen, the narrative and the brush are permitted an infinite expanse with infinite faculties. Some vital social intelligence and self-reflective skill are lost when children are asked to commit all their time to beakers and numbers.

Perhaps most remarkable, the humanities teach—by hook or by crook—a sense of unyielding compassion for other people, those that came before us and those who are our contemporaries. Even in the professional realm, you would rather have a doctor who studied Rumi in college than one who was held up in the chemistry lab on weekends. It was Rumi who famously advised, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

There is an escape present in narratives, paintings, sculptures and measures of music that enriches, rather than underscores, the hard sciences, and vice versa. All the fields are related. And students deserve exposure to them all for a balanced education.

Sarah Jawhari is a graduate student at the Case School of Dental Medicine.