We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.
The ability to draw from other disciplines produces better scientists.
Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes is an associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis.
As a chemist, I agree that remaining competitive in the sciences is a critical issue. But as an instructor, I also think that if American STEM grads are going lead the world in innovation, then their science education cannot be divorced from the liberal arts.
Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomy and dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure. When introducing the iPad 2, Jobs, who dropped out of college but continued to audit calligraphy classes, declared: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” (Indeed, one of Apple’s scientists, Steve Perlman, was inspired to invent the QuickTime multimedia program by an episode of “Star Trek.”)
Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, credits her degree in philosophy and medieval history in helping her be the first woman to lead a high-tech Fortune 20 corporation. “If you go into a setting and everybody thinks alike, it’s easy,” she has said. “But you will probably get the wrong answer.”
I became a chemistry professor by working side-by-side at the bench with a number of mentors, and the scholar/mentor relationships I’ve enjoyed were a critical aspect of my science education. And it is the centerpiece of a college experience within the liberal arts environment. For me, it was the key that unlocked true learning, and for my students, it has made them better scientists and better equipped to communicate their work to the public.
Like apprentices to a painter, my students sit with me and plan experiments. We gather and review data and determine the next questions to address. After two to three years of direct mentoring, students develop the ability to interpret results on their own, describe how findings advance knowledge, generate ideas for subsequent experiments and plan these experiments themselves. Seniors train new students in the lab, helping them learn gene recombination techniques that depend on accurate calculations and precise delivery of reagents. Put simply, a microliter-scale mistake can spell disaster for an experiment that took days to complete. And while my students work on these sensitive projects, they often offer creative and innovative approaches. To reduce calculation errors, one of my students wrote a user-friendly computer program to automatically measure replicate volumes. He did this by drawing on programming skills he learned in a computer science course he took for fun. Young people stuck exclusively in chemistry lecture halls will not evolve the same way.