STEM instruction often happens in a vacuum, but rather than creating standards that emphasize STEM or the humanities, department heads should work with faculty to understand that the disciplines are partners — they enhance and better each other.
The types of skills that a student gains building a robot, which involves being presented with an issue and thinking critically toward a solution, complement one's capacity to dissect the core issues in a story and think how each of the elements — the characters, the plot, the cliff-hanger — all work together.
But despite the fact that reading and taking a STEM class revolve around the same goals of developing complex thought and problem solving techniques, the two continue to be placed in entirely different bags. At earlier levels of education reading gets much more attention than science; in some cases, science isn't really taught at all.
Many would argue, however, that literature can do more to build the types of skills employers actually want not only in liberal arts majors, but also STEM majors who are traditionally seen, especially in higher education, as needing to focus on technical training. And on the flip-side of that, others would also contend that interesting STEM topics at early education can help students read more effectively. This is to say books on topics like dinosaurs and spiders may be more engaging to kids, because children are inherently little scientists themselves, when they go outside and climb on rocks, play in dirt and look at worms and sit outside looking at the stars.
Increasingly, employers are realizing that while some students graduate college with precise engineering expertise, they lack the soft skills in communication, adaptability, and capacity to analyze scientific texts critically, qualities which come from engaging in the liberal arts throughout college and practicing reading at the K-12 level. For instance, a 2014 report from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that demand for candidates with STEM competencies — just the ability to engage in scientific thinking — is significantly much higher than the 5% of professions determined to exist in STEM fields.
Leaders of higher ed institutions can make sure that their core curriculum standards are emphasizing both humanities courses in reading and writing, as well as the types of STEM classes, like engineering or computer science classes, which can ignite the critical thinking synapses in students' brains. But they can also work across K-12 to communicate to schools the values that employers are actually seeking, and working with them to integrate the scientific method into humanities and vice versa.
David V. Rosowsky, Ph.D., is Provost and Senior Vice President at the University of Vermont in his 2016 essay, "The Power of Partnership and Pairings: Why STEM and Liberal Arts are better together," advises institutions to make taking humanities courses an expectation for students involved in engineering fields, because they will need to have the ability to communicate.
But he also says that it goes the other way. Students involved in liberal arts fields should be expected to take some technical courses, because throughout their lives they will also enter "a world that requires a degree of literacy and competency in mathematics, life sciences, physical sciences, finance, computer science and coding."
To separate reading and scientific reasoning from an early age does a disservice to students' educational pathways. Being young scientists, exploring and constantly observing, is intrinsically human — and its only a potential advantage for educators that want to get their students excited about reading. At the same time, the separation has long-term impacts, because students may not be equipped with the necessary skills to engage thoughtfully beyond their technical areas of expertise. As Rosowsky very aptly puts at the end of his piece:
"Perhaps we should stop the “either-or” rhetoric and co-exist – as is the best destiny of these highly complementary collections of disciplines – for the betterment of our students and our society."
This column represents the first installment in Education Dive: Higher Ed's "Dive Into STEM" column, which will run on the second Friday of every month.