Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Importance of the Humanities in STEM

Let's start with an easy opinion to swallow:  The US has a problem with its STEM education. But not in the way you might think. The trouble with STEM in the US isn't that we rank low worldwide in math, or in science. It's that the money going toward improving those test scores is too often taken from the arts. And it shouldn't be. That might sound odd coming from me - the organizer of a STEM program that serves 50+ kids, as well as an engineer and programmer - but hear me out. It's not that I think STEM education is useless, or that we need to take resources away from science and technology classes. But too many schools teach STEM materials poorly, and at a much bigger cost than they realize.

In the digital age, we're hyperfocused on teaching math and science to "catch up" to countries like China and India in terms of scores on international exams. This emphasis on test scores has increased funding for STEM programs - great! Student interest can flourish. Teachers can get new technology for their classrooms. And where the funding is used to improve test scores, they improve. It's a win/win deal.   But that funding has to come from somewhere, and often it comes from budget cuts in the liberal arts and humanities. That is very, very bad.

Note: Not how the brain works. 

We seem to have this idea that STEM and the arts are two immutably separate entities. Just ask an engineering major what they think of the liberal arts at their university, or vice versa. It follows that they have to be in constant competition - one has to be more important. You can't have both science AND religion. You can't love both math AND painting. Maybe such a divide meant more when technology was factory machines and assembly lines, but the way we use technology has changed immensely even in the past few years. Supporters of STEM education often remind us that, in the future, every job from will require some knowledge of technology. But the reverse is also true: every worker in a STEM related field would benefit from the kind of education that comes with the arts. 

There's so much more to building, programming, and selling a computer than hardware specifications. A computer has to be used by humans, humans that bring their own aesthetic preferences, learning curves, and emotional pulls to the table. All of that has to be designed into the machine, and there's more to it than statistics. There's some psychology, some visual arts, maybe even some music or some writing. Computers are sold as lifestyles, not machines. And that' s not even counting the interpersonal skills the production team had to use to brainstorm, or the dozens of concept sketches and pitches created before the final design was chosen.  There's a creativity needed to get ahead in technology, and it doesn't come from the  skill set that makes kids better at taking math tests. But somehow, although the need for the humanities in technology becomes more prevalent every day, we've been devaluing the classes and the skills they give us. What can we gain from the humanities in STEM? And how can we make sure those skills aren't left out?

The best STEM class I ever took was a technology class taught by a middle school librarian. (I've mentioned it before, here.) She started the school's technology club the first year I attended - I was one of the founding members. In the club, we tried to finagle our favorite technologies into different parts of the school and curriculum. We taught the English and Social Studies teacher how to make Google Earth tours. We made videos for new students using editing programs and green screens. One member even designed a new website for the school. By the next year, the club has become a class, and one that was unique in two ways. One, we were working with people outside of the class and our experience with technology. Anything we created had to be presented in a way that was easy for anyone to understand and use. Two, our projects were working to solve real world problems, problems that required skills beyond just our programming expertise. 

So we wrote tutorials. We created animated sequences and music for the videos. We read books and drew pictures and argued over the latest technology news. We were able to use the skills we learned in our English, History, Art, and Music classes to augment our projects in the class. While I know the class wouldn't have worked for everyone,  many of the later engineering and science classes I took only focused on teaching the minimal technological  skills necessary for a basic concept. That's fine for a technology class. But those are skills you have to get somewhere. This only emphasizes the importance of Humanities focused classes in all student's education. Those classes are where students gain the skills needed to turn technology into real world solutions for real world people.

As I mentioned before, this is more important today than ever. Take a minute to watch these commercials :

Notice anything about these advertisements? They aren't selling their products based on how many processors they have, or how many transistors they can fit on a chip. They sell computers based on how people use them. And computers are used for so much more than pedigree STEM purposes. You need artists who can create programs for artists. You need historians. You need musicians. If for no other reason, you need art educated people to create the media you enjoy so much today. Every TV show, game, article and more you find online comes from arts education every bit as much as STEM.  Who'd want to live in a world without the art we love? How could we move forward without the art that has inspired us to create new things?

We play a dangerous game by ascribing innovation to the kinds of skills that can be measured by standardized tests. Support your local arts and humanities programs. Bring art into your STEM classes, and STEM into your art classes. Read, watch, create, and enjoy how the world you live in hasn't been created by opposing forces, but a beautiful mixture of every skill humanity has to offer. Push for access to education in each and every one. We've got to create a future that's worth the time we put into it.