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Magazine: The case for STEM

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When it first came out in 1966, “Star Trek” predicted a lot of things — cell phones, tablets, automatic doors, human fondness for alien sexual relations — but not even the trippiest episode could predict a world where someone could snap a disappearing photograph, order a pizza, and send the President an invective-filled 140-character message while sitting on the toilet. Even though we never realized the moon vacations of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” technology nevertheless assumed the central role in our lives that we predicted it would — just in a different way and on a different scale. No wonder, then, that almost half of Stanford students major in a STEM-related field — the only “fuzzy” major among the top five declared last year was Science, Technology, and Society, and that has the first half of STEM in its name.

Given the prevalence that STEM enjoys at Stanford, I have not been surprised to encounter a steady stream of talks, lectures, thinkpieces and conversations about the value of the humanities for someone studying the sciences or engineering. A holistic education, so the argument goes, encourages critical thinking, instills an appreciation for diverse viewpoints, helps one discover a purpose to their work along with a sense of ethics and creates a well-rounded individual who is able to coherently and clearly communicate what they think. All of this is undoubtedly true — I pursued a history minor and took SLE as a freshman, both of which made me a better communicator and critical thinker while pushing me to think about the ethics and implications of my scientific work as well. In short, studying the humanities along with my primary field imparted me with useful, practical skills while contributing to my intellectual development. Just as the thinkpieces said they would.

However, the same should be said for the converse — that STEM holds immense intellectual and practical value for students of the humanities. Right now, as Amy Shen noted in the Stanford Review, it is possible to graduate without taking a single rigorous science, math, or engineering course — “Physics for Poets” and “Sleep and Dreams” are nowhere near as rigorous as core engineering or math classes. As I had mentioned in a previous column, even a class devoted entirely to critiquing technology had no technical material on its syllabus, making up for it with episodes of “Black Mirror.”

This is problematic on both a practical and intellectual level. On a practical level, it is obvious what the implications of a lack of STEM knowledge are. At least five of the ten biggest challenges facing humanity — food security, climate change, artificial intelligence, an open internet, universal healthcare — are problems that require knowledge of the natural sciences and engineering to solve, and this does not even include issues like WMD proliferation, natural disaster protection, and long-term survival of our species. These are the issues that Stanford students will use their education to address when they leave zip code 94305. It is fair to say that some depth of knowledge in the science underlying these processes would go a long way in improving the ability of future policymakers, intellectuals, and businesspeople in addressing these issues. It is hard to talk about eradicating the banana plague or switching the entire electric grid to solar energy without some understanding of the basic biology or engineering that underlie both these problems.

In addition to science and technology specific issues, more and more public policy relies on insights from cognitive psychology, large data sets and systems engineering. Indeed, these frameworks are changing the way we make policy from the city level to the national level. On the business side, it is more and more evident that a free and open internet is essential for commercial growth, that new and disruptive technology will upend markets that no one thought was possible to break into and that even something as fundamental as a contract may completely change in the future. Everyone addressing these issues need not be a data scientist or software engineer — but some structured engineering and statistics knowledge would go a long way in improving our ability to address them.

More fundamentally, however, the university owes it to its students to ensure that they grow intellectually in all directions. The entirety of human civilization rests on a pale blue dot shooting through space — but the natural world extends for billions of light years beyond it. A truly holistic and liberal education would thus encourage the study of the natural world, not deemphasize it. It is as important to learn how to think systematically, work with data, and apply first principles with mathematical rigor to draw insights about the world around us as it is to learn how to appreciate diverse perspectives, communicate ideas effectively, and contemplate the ‘big questions’ of life. Even as the latter influences the interaction of science and the public, the former has the potential to change the way we think about and create history, literature and the arts.

There is a stereotype of the snooty humanities student — someone who dismisses STEM as somehow intellectually impure or a pursuit solely for a material end. I have met very few students like this. The majority have been like me — we were inspired by a natural world that is amazingly complex, beautiful and rich with knowledge. I personally have found elegance and beauty in equations of physics to rival the greatest paintings of Van Gogh — it still amazes me that a set of only four simple differential equations underpin all the modern electronics that we take for granted today. As I reflect on my last few weeks here as an undergraduate, I hope that more students will be able to find that sense of amazement as well.

Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.