Opinion: The case for stronger STEM curriculum

By Bryan Moyers

We’re not teaching enough science in universities.

Now, I know, the humanities have been under attack for some time now. Politicians have disparaged them [1], and some science popularizers have even suggested [2] that science has eclipsed them. This pervasive attack has even included the NSF reducing funding for political science [3].

So before I get started, I’ll say that I’m not belittling the humanities here. I’m not calling for more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) majors and fewer humanities majors. I’m not fighting to cut back on humanities requirements. I believe that humanities courses give important insights to all students. I also think that the narrative of unemployed humanities majors is contradicted by recent evidence [4].

I’m saying that, in addition to learning the humanities, students should learn more science.

That said, let’s look at the state of general education requirements.

Table 1. General education requirements by university.
University Humanities requirements STEM requirements
University of Michigan 7 courses 1 course
Harvard 10 courses 3 courses
University of Chicago 9 courses 5 courses
Eastern Michigan University 5 courses 2 courses
Indiana University – Purdue University at Fort Wayne 8 courses 3 courses

There is a ubiquitous STEM/humanities imbalance in general education requirements. Across geography and tier of school, there is always a much higher bar set for the humanities (See table 1). Look at other universities. You’ll see the same trend.

Given these observations, why should students take more STEM courses? Is an imbalance inherently wrong? Well, no– but I believe there are compelling reasons to change the status quo.

STEM education helps a developing student, just as the humanities do. Training in STEM promotes rigorous and logical thinking. It teaches students how to ask the correct questions to address a problem. It helps students understand how our economy is restricted or promoted by the nature of our technology.

Of course, students can learn these skills elsewhere. And, of course, problems of teaching styles can mean that these skills aren’t actually taught in all classes. But both of these arguments apply equally well to humanities courses. They’re not strong arguments against requiring STEM—or humanities—training.

Moreover, what study of history, philosophy, literature, sociology, or any other field isn’t touched by the ebb and flow of technology in society? As a specific example, international relations are strongly influenced by advances in physics, engineering, and other disciplines. Understanding science can enhance understanding of other fields.

Appealing to the intellectual benefits of STEM education is all well and good. But it might feel like starry-eyed idealism. So let’s look at the practical benefits of STEM courses.

STEM education improves employability. Quantitative reasoning and technological expertise are frequently [5] listed [6] as characteristics that employers seek. Yes, humanities majors are employable, but we should give students many skills to improve their employment prospects.

Students also open up wider career paths by learning STEM. Technical writing and science journalism are areas of the humanities that relate medical, engineering, or other scientific information to laymen. Business analytics and political analysis both require quantitative skills to analyze problems in humanities fields. There are oodles of careers which require STEM training without being STEM-specific.

The benefits aren’t only for the individual, though. Society at large benefits from STEM education as well.

Our world is increasingly dominated by technology, and an informed voter needs to be able to navigate through scientific jargon. Issues of vaccination, evolution in the classroom, and climate change affect our society in nearly real-time. Our politicians, media, and interest groups make frequent references to statistics and draw inferences, but humans can be very bad at reasoning about statistics (see the Monty Hall problem [7], the Birthday Problem [8], or virtually any other topic brought up in a statistics textbook). People who spearhead and follow harmful, anti-science political movements are frequently well-educated [9], making it difficult to find problems with their reasoning.

This confluence of factors allows ideological forces to mislead us, unintentionally or by design. Our general education isn’t preparing us for these issues. It has been shown that education in a relevant field can decrease odds of scientific misinterpretation [10]. Given that college-educated individuals make up 40% of active voters [11], a stronger STEM education can serve as a tool for political empowerment.

There is an imbalance in general education requirements, and this imbalance has negative effects on students and society. How can we fix the problem?

Any curriculum change to include more STEM courses would need to be institution-specific. A change would need to include breadth and depth in STEM disciplines—just like the current humanities requirements. It would need to respect student schedules and administrative difficulties. These are all difficult tasks. A full and clear solution to this problem is beyond the scope of this piece. But raising awareness of a problem is an important step in solving it.

Humanities enrich our lives in many ways. But so does science: our modern world is shaped by science, it offers powerful intellectual tools to students, and there are practical career benefits in STEM training. Holding a college degree should mean having exposure to these topics. A broad base of knowledge is the mark of good education. We are currently ignoring a large portion of the collective educational pie.

About the author

bryan

Bryan Moyers, is a doctoral student in the Bioinformatics program at the University of Michigan. Bryan’s research focuses on methodological problems in molecular evolution, and correctly inferring information from data. In other words, his research sheds light on problems with the methods commonly used in the field of Evolutionary Biology so that improvements can be made. Bryan holds degrees in Biology and Psychology from Purdue University. His interests are in science and education issues, philosophy of science, and the intersection of science and business. Outside of science, Bryan enjoys reading, running, hiking, and brewing/consuming beer.

Find all posts by Bryan here.

References

  1. Kingkade, T. Pat McCrory lashes out against ‘educational elite’ and liberal arts college courses. Huffington Post (2013).
  2. Pigliucci, M. Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy. Scientia Salon (2014).
  3. Mole, B. NSF cancels political-science grant cycle. Nature News (2013).
  4. It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. Association of American colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates (2013).
  5. Cray, K. The skills/qualities employers want in new college graduate hires. National Association of Colleges and Employers (2014).
  6. Adams, S. The 10 skills employers most want in 2015 graduates. Forbes (2014).
  7. Let’s make a deal: Monty knows. UCSD Mathematics Department.
  8. Siegist, K. The birthday problem. Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Alabama in Huntsville.
  9. Jacobs, T. No to vaccination: A cultural explanation. Pacific Standard (2015).
  10. Aarnio, K and Lindeman, M. Paranormal beliefs, education, and thinking styles. Personality and individual differences, Volume 39(7), pp 1127-1236 (2005).
  11. Hunt, A. Does the U.S. president need a college degree? Bloomberg View (2015)

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