Some Words On STEM & Non-STEM Disciplines

On Friday, whilst perusing the Twitters, I stumbled on this gem of a tweet:

I’m going to assume based on follow-up tweets that the author Lil squatty is using liberal arts to encompass the humanities, social sciences, and/or arts (i.e. what might be thought of as non-STEM1, disciplines), and not the much broader and more inclusive set of disciplines that span the arts, mathematics, and natural sciences (to name a few).

I’m also going to assume that Lil squatty is unaware that STEM is bookended by the liberal arts, even though it’s right there in the acronym – hello science and math. Their STEM confusion, in my opinion, comes from a limited but perhaps prevalent understanding of which disciplines fall under the liberal arts umbrella.

Regardless, assuming Lil squatty’s tweet was a comparison of STEM vs non-STEM disciplines, I can’t even begin to tell you how much I disagree with the idea that STEM is somehow better than non-STEM, or that students studying STEM courses are more rigorous, harder workers, better critical thinkers, or somehow smarter than their non-STEM counterparts. Nor would I agree if STEM and non-STEM were interchanged in the previous sentence.

Sadly, I’d like to write that this sense of superiority is unique to Lil squatty, but reading some of the replies to their tweet suggests otherwise, that this attitude is at least somewhat popular within the study of STEM disciplines. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem if someone has a personal affinity to a particular topic of study. Hands down I’d choose to study mathematics, statistics, or computer science related disciplines before I’d choose to study history (for example). But that’s not because I think history or any other non-STEM discipline is less than. It is because my passion lies in the STEM fields, not because history or non-STEM disciplines lack in richness, nuance, or difficulty, nor that studying them is somehow irrelevant today. I can only hope that the number of people who believe that STEM is somehow superior to other non-STEM areas of study represents a very small minority of the population.

Fortunately, it seems to me that there are also more and more STEM-folk who recognize this tweet and the attitude of superiority that it seems to represent as the arrogant, useless, divisive, and blatantly wrong statement that it is. The reality is that some STEM students would excel in non-STEM disciplines and some non-STEM students would excel in STEM disciplines. This doesn’t mean that everyone will. But the ability to excel in one or another (or both, or neither) does not imply that one set of disciplines is better than another.

Over the last number of years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with colleagues from non-STEM disciplines. I marvel at their ability to look at the world and solve problems in ways that I don’t, to consider things that my training hasn’t necessarily suggested I consider. This different way of knowing the world, this different way of thinking about things, this different way of solving problems, it isn’t better or worse than the problem-solving skills provided to me during my training – it’s just different.

And this diversity of problem-solving skills is so important, especially when considering the broad social challenges we currently face. Poverty, hunger, climate change, and others are not the purview of a single discipline. They are complex, multifaceted challenges that span the STEM and non-STEM domains alike. To think that any single discipline from STEM or otherwise will be able to solve any of these challenges is short sighted and ill-fated. To believe that STEM disciplines are somehow better than non-STEM disciplines adds unnecessary roadblocks to any path that leads to viable solutions.

So what is the problem? Why is it that some people believe themselves superior because of their choice to study within the STEM fields? There is probably no single answer to this, however, I think part of the answer falls to a lack of communication between the disciplines. Students are trained to be experts in their domains, and to accomplish this training they are typically and systematically siloed. There are huge benefits to this training process, but it also means that students trained with their chosen discipline-specific skills may be blinded to solutions that fall outside their training, and more than that, may not see the worth of other problem-solving methods. As Abraham Maslow said:

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

But equipping students with discipline-specific tools isn’t in and of itself the problem. The tools we train students to use are really good at solving problems and they continue to get better, but they aren’t necessarily universal tools. That is, tools that work for one type of problem might not be the best tool for others. The problem, in my opinion, is that siloed training leads to the risk that one discipline doesn’t recognize other tools for what they are – excellent tools for solving problems – or they do recognize them, but belittle them because they don’t fit the mould to which that discipline is accustomed to solving problems.

The trick then is to train students to know when to use their discipline-specific training, when to recognize the utility of other disciplines, and when to work together to develop new ways to solve problems. This can only happen if we provide students with spaces where we intentionally break down the silo walls and allow students from different disciplines to work together to solve real problems. This is more than having students from STEM disciplines gain breadth of knowledge by requiring they obtain a number of credits in non-STEM disciplines (and vice-versa). It is developing curricula that requires the collaboration of non-STEM and STEM disciplines to understand and define a problem through a critical review of available sources and data, and to devise and implement a solution that is robust, focused, realistic, feasible, and supported by success metrics. This does not mean that students become experts in other domains, but that they are open to other ways of thinking. This can only happen if we provide students with training and experiential opportunities to practice teamwork, communication, knowledge translation and transfer, knowledge mobilization, and respect for other ways of knowing.

Bottom line: STEM disciplines are awesome and important and we need students who are passionate and skilled with STEM tools to solve so many of our unsolved STEM problems. Likewise, non-STEM disciplines are awesome and important and we need students who are passionate and skilled with non-STEM tools to solve so many of our unsolved non-STEM problems. But more than that, we need STEM and non-STEM students to come together, to communicate and collaborate more completely, to recognize the power of different ways of knowing, to solve everything else. This can only happen if educators provide the space for these opportunities, and the space to understand that one way of knowing is not better or worse than another.

1 STEM=Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

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