Saturday, June 23, 2012

How humanities and social sciences benefit STEM

I'm sure everyone saw the terrible video posted yesterday promoting the "Science; it's a girl thing!" campaign. Deborah Blum has a thorough collection of the responses here, and I'm not sure I have anything to add on why the video is so problematic. (The video has been taken down, by the way.)

I thought it was really interesting to see this the same day: stories from girls at Stuyvesant High School, where all students are required to take a year of computer science coursework. I noticed a really interesting trend. Many of the girls described themselves as being equally interested in both the humanities and STEM, and don't want to have to choose. However, Victoria Stempel, who had always considered herself more interested in the humanities, describes the problem:
 "Now that I know about the potenial of comp sci, I am considering taking it in college. However, I do not want to abandon the path I have been interested in pursuing for a long time. Ideally, this would mean double majoring in English and computer science. Unfortunately, some universities with muliple colleges house these two subjects in different schools (ex: UPenn, Binghamton), making double majoring in a liberal arts course and an engineering course almost impossible. Due to this issue, I am very conflicted as to which path to take in life—or even which specific colleges to apply to within larger universities!"
I hate that girls (and boys too, for that matter) feel like they have to decide between the humanities/social sciences and STEM. I suspect this partly contributes to why girls don't see themselves going into science and engineering. Not a single girl featured in this piece said anything about high heels or makeup, but they did talk about their interests in English and art. I strongly believe that not only are the humanities and social sciences compatible with STEM, they can make you better at it. And I say that as an electrical engineer who also did a minor in Communications and spent all of college in various music ensembles.

I don't mean for this to be exhaustive, but here are some of the ways that a background in other areas can help you as an engineer:

Communications/English/Literature: Okay, every high school student who thinks that you don't have to pay attention in English class because you're going to be an engineer and you won't need it? You are wrong. You are so, unbelievably, wrong. Engineers write constantly. They write for other engineers, and they write for lay audiences. If you want to be an engineering professor, I think you will write more than you will do anything else. You need to be able to write well. And more generally, you need to be able to communicate well. Engineers present their work in conferences and meetings, so you need to be able to describe your work effectively and concisely. Anything you can study that will improve your writing or communication skills will benefit you as an engineer.

Foreign languages/International Relations/Cultural Studies: It is a global market these days. If you have fluency in another language, you will be very marketable as an engineer. Even without being bilingual, understanding other cultures will help you understand how technology might be used in other countries, or at least how to approach the problems.

Art/Design: A lot of engineers physically make things. If you can make your devices, whether prototypes or commercial products, look nice, you will have a huge leg up on people like me who make functional but ugly devices. People will be more impressed with a technology when it looks polished and finessed. Plus, many skills you'll learn in doing art will simply help you make products. I did some plastic-forming for a prototype, and a lot of the resources I used for learning this process were for artists. Even if you don't do fabrication, a strong sense of design will help you with posters and presentations about your work, which brings us back to the first point: effective communication.

Psychology/Sociology: You can't just make the best technology to be successful. You have to make technology that people want to buy. Understanding how people use technology is crucial. This also gets into business and marketing types of decisions, but I think any areas of social science that help you understand people better will help you understand how to make better technology.

History: I wrote a whole post on how a history class helped me really understand science. Having a background in  history can give you a much broader look at technology: how it's changed society and how it hasn't. A long-term perspective lets you see better where technology is headed. My current institution has an excellent History of Science program, and it's fascinating to hear about these students' work.

Again, this isn't exhaustive, but I wanted to give a few examples of how compatible humanities, social sciences, and STEM really are.


  1. First, a repeat comment from Cammels with Hammers:

    I definitely can agree that there are engineers who could use better writing skills. I am a software engineer and we do have to write at least some documentation. And the systems engineers have to write requirements for the software. I've seen some poorly written stuff in my 5 years and a few months I went through a horrible discussion over the correct usage of to/too. I had spotted incorrect usage in something a minor as commentary and fixed it. (The commentary originally said "to short" in regards to a length.) My head hurt a bit over the fact that fully grown adults were thinking the original was correct and that my fix was wrong.

    And some additional commentary:
    My college required 16 credits of humanities (classes were often 3 or 4 credits each, so this meant about 5 classes). My Industrial Psychology class was perhaps the best I took. I also took Spanish, but I'm not sure that's an important foreign language in regards to engineering. I've been meaning to study Hindi on my own due to how much I interact with Indians from outsourcing. But such a language was not available at my college.

    Oh, we also had to take 6 credits of "Technical Communications," which was essentially English with a twist for engineers. And I think 3 credits of freshman English was also required. So my college did find humanities and such somewhat important.

  2. Yeah, I think that writing skills are the most important thing to see added to engineering curricula. Some of the undergrad lab reports I've seen have absolutely terrible grammar! I'm glad your program included some humanities coursework.

    Foreign language is a little tricky. I wouldn't support requiring it for engineers simply because the classes are so time-intensive, but I think engineers who do have proficiency in a second language can have a big advantage in job-hunting. The specific language matters quite a bit though, as you point out. I haven't seen Spanish listed often in job descriptions (though it's quite useful in areas like Education or Medicine). I think I've mostly seen East Asian languages desired, though I'm sure that varies based on specialty.