Why STEM, liberal arts education should co-exist

Commentary by Steve Warshaw

We hear frequently about the desperate need for more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates while also hearing that we have too many liberal arts majors with few job prospects. What we really need is to train all students in basic skills such as critical thinking and persuasive communication while exposing them to STEM principles and the liberal arts. Such a background prepares them well for training in a career or multiple careers.

The distinction between STEM education and a liberal arts education is, in many ways, an artificial one. Scientists and artists deal with some of the same constructs. Like journalists, judges, and CEOs, scientists communicate a story based on evidence, hypothesis, and so on. Science can not be done by robots. It’s a process — it’s not just a matter of here’s the evidence that proves what I was trying to show, so that ends it. And in the marketplace of scientific ideas, there’s increasing competition. And if we have two competing explanations for something, the one that’s more elegant, simpler, and clearer is usually the one people in the scientific community will prefer. Consider all the gyrations that astronomers had to go through when they thought Earth was the center of our solar system. Copernicus and Galileo came up with a much simpler explanation, and scientists were eventually won over. It’s the Occam’s Razor principle: If you have competing hypotheses that predict equally well, you should pick the simplest explanation, or the one with the fewest assumptions. Quite often, scientists are competing with an existing paradigm; if we can come up with a different, more persuasive idea, it will prevail. It’s become even more so now with so much science being communicated through the general media. We have to convince our colleagues that we’ve thought of all the controls and possible questions.

Similarly, the old concept of a single scientist toiling in his or her lab and publishing a paper individually is not nearly as prevalent today. Science has become much more of a group activity among co-authors, so scientists need the skills of working with others and negotiating with them.

Critical thinking is a key “liberal arts” skill that we need to teach all of our students. Scientists need to be skeptical, critical thinkers. They need to be able to ask good, significant questions, the ones that don’t have yes-or-no answers but instead open up a whole new level of investigation.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics is a comprehensive high school. Our humanities program, although it’s difficult to quantify, is just as strong as our STEM programs. We offer a number of interdisciplinary courses such as Engineering the Modern; Science, Math and Theater;  Medical Ethics and Leadership; and Forensic Science. We offer entrepreneurship courses with a scientific perspective on how to create a business model, present to venture capitalists, and such. Our students are adept in math and science, but they also pursue languages, literature, economics, the fine arts, and even athletics with the same passion they bring to STEM classes and research.

To a great extent, your true training starts when you get a new job. You don’t truly learn to be a doctor until you start your internship and residency, and you don’t really learn how to be a scientist until you apprentice as part of your graduate program. As you work in a lab or program, a trained scientist mentors you. In general, the high school and college years need to be a time for training our students’ sensibilities, their ability to communicate their ideas, their resilience and their ability to adapt to changes, technology, and hierarchical systems in which they’ll be working.

We need to offer an ethical component as well. Ethics isn’t right versus wrong but right versus right as seen from different perspectives. A commitment to ethical thinking and decision-making are the kinds of things we need to teach, but they don’t necessarily prepare you for a particular career. We are developing habits of mind that will serve students no matter which careers they enter.

It’s an artificial distinction to say that students either focus on STEM, which leads to a particular career or set of careers, or they go the liberal arts route. We need physicians and mathematicians and engineers who are well versed in these fields, yes, but they also need to be able to communicate, consider the social impacts of their work, and act with integrity.  And we need journalists and judges, business leaders and school PTA presidents who understand and can champion and defend science.