STEMming the tide

This is a guest post from Michea Bonilla on a particularly timely subject: the value of non-STEM subjects and disciplines. There’s been a great deal of furore over the last few days regarding the “culling” of A-level subjects such as art history and archaeology. As a physicist (which is about as STEM as it gets), I find the continual elevation of STEM subjects over the arts and humanities to be dispiriting and immensely worrying from a number of perspectives, some of which I described in a post last year.

What’s particularly irksome is that fundamental scientific research — i.e. work which is done without an eye on the bottom line or the potential for the next new widget — is rather closer in ethos to the arts and humanities than it is to, for example, engineering or near-market R&D. Michea’s post provides an engaging, personal and important insight into their experience of the STEM vs non-STEM divide…

(P.S. I’m responsible for the title above so if you feel it misrepresents the post it’s me that’s to blame, not Michea).


 

So I wanted to start this off by giving you all a bit of my background, especially since I will be dicussing STEM and non-STEM degrees and the disservice we are doing to our children (and ourselves!) with the constant push for STEM while sometimes outright shunning anything else.

I am a 34 year old who holds two degrees, a Masters of Divinity (a religion degree commonly posessed by clergy) and an Associate of the Arts Oregon Transfer Degree with a focus in Sociology. Why an AA instead of an AS? Long story short, I was out of financial aid money and I had already racked up $30k in student loans due to having to change majors because of health issues. It was the only degree available that I had “completed” all of the requirements to get.

I grew up in a house that praised both STEM and non-STEM fields. My mother is a microbiologist and veterinary technician and my father holds two degrees, one in fish and wildlife (a STEM degree) and the other in economics. I grew up spending many of my weekends with my mother in the lab at the VMTH at UC Davis and developed an outright love for the biological sciences. To this day the smell of the gram stain chemicals will almost instantly bring a smile to my face because of my memories in the lab.

I excelled in school in science and in music, but struggled in math and English. I even received awards of Honors in Biology and Recognition in Chemistry from the Golden State Exam. I completed the course work required for the basic computers course in under two months my senior year and transferred into the advanced class at the beginning of the second semester.

So why is all of this important?

Because growing up, even though I knew that both STEM and non-STEM fields were necessary for a well rounded society I still had to deal with the constant comments about “throw away degrees”. The Liberal Arts degree jokes were a dime a dozen, and if you considered going into a field that was considered a liberal art or humanities, you were teased to no end. I even bought into the hype about how if I wanted to earn a decent wage and not be a burger flipper or working a minimum wage job my whole life I would have to get a STEM degree.

I was already pretty burnt out on school by the time I graduated in 2000 due to the introduction of the senior project and the fact that I was actually taking extra classes on top of my already full class load. While most students had at least one open period, I had -1 open periods. I actually had two classes at the same time (senior project and computers). I took two English classes that year because the school wasn’t willing to let me count my British Literature course as my senior English credit and my World Literature course as my junior English credit. I took math applications that year and learned how to apply math to real world situations, which meant I had a lot of extra work outside of school.

While I had wanted to take a break and get my head on straight, my family pushed for me to enter college through Solano Community College since my grades and test scores (ACT, SAT II, ASVAB) weren’t “good enough” for the colleges I wanted to go to. Never mind that I scored in the top 90th percentile for my ACT and the top 99th percentile in almost everything on the ASVAB…my grades were what shot me in the foot.

I enrolled in the fall of 2000 with my major listed as undecided and did my best to make my parents proud. I wanted to get a degree in either micro or molecular biology, but I was also really wanting to get a degree in literature or history. I was too ashamed to tell anyone that I wanted a degree in a field that was the source of “Would you like fries with that?” jokes and ridicule.

I dropped out of college due to fatigue in 2001 and spent the next four years working various jobs, including cooking jobs for Xanterra National Parks and Resorts. I constantly looked back at my failures in college and friends and family kept urging me to go back to school so I could get a degree and make decent money. Every time I brought up a degree that wasn’t in one of the STEM fields I was met with reminders about how those sorts of degrees weren’t worth anything and I would just be wasting my time. I was told that all the “good jobs” were in STEM and I needed to focus on one of those fields.

Another big push was to work in a medical field, which I decided to go for in 2005 when I entered training to become a phlebotomist and lab assistant. I got to intern at Kaiser Regional Microbiology in Berkeley, California and on Travis Air Force Base. I was happiest when I was able to work in the lab, but I learned early on that unless I had a masters or higher I would be nothing more than a grunt wherever I worked.

I began work as a phlebotomist in 2006 and found myself getting paid only a dollar or so more than when I worked as a cook (with no certifications, training, or well…anything). Sure, I had a job, but it wasn’t anything like everyone had been promising me.

Fast forward to 2013 and I have just completed my M:Div and am also enrolled in college at Rogue Community College. I find myself joking about my “throw away degree” and how I’m trying to get a degree in a field where I can actually make money and have a steady job.

I feel shame whenever my M:Div is brought up.

My parents remind me from time to time that my father was able to complete his masters in 4-5 years, and that I really should apply myself better.

I wound up spending four years at RCC due to mental health issues and having to go from full time to half time. I racked up $30k in student loans just to survive and appealed multiple times to have my financial aid extended after having to change my major not once, but twice (Early Childhood Education → Criminology → AAOT). When I graduated in 2015 I didn’t feel pride, I felt disappointed and like I had let people down. Sure, I had my degree, but it was pretty much useless outside of transferring to a university.

So…what does all of this have to do with STEM v non-STEM degrees?

A couple of months ago I found an article that discusses how we are doing a disservice to our children by shunning non-STEM subjects, especially literature and the arts. After reading it I looked at what was going on with my own daughters and I felt my heart sink.

My eldest had gone off to Job Corps to learn a trade, but she had been told by her counselor before she left school that anything outside of a STEM degree would be a worthless degree and she should either learn a trade or get a STEM degree.  She told me a few years later that at the time she’d wanted to tell that person they were full of sh*t, but she’d kept her mouth shut.

Currently she’s unemployed with certifications in culinary arts. People want experience, not certifications, where we live, so she is stuck either getting a minimum wage job to gain experience, or find a job in a different field than the one she’s trained in.

My middle daughter is the one suffering the most from this push for STEM degrees. She is very skilled in art and loves music, but she has been told that if she gets a degree in either of those fields, she might as well just throw her money away. Before she’d been told that she had planned on going into the music field and possibly teaching music.

Now, she doesn’t know any more and is just sort of drifting about as she finishes her final year in high school.

Because of the push for STEM classes, the board of education in Oregon decided that students had to take three years of math, but only classes listed at Algebra 1 or higher would count. Both of my step daughters (the two oldest) were moved around constantly when they were younger so they were still in basic math when they entered high school. This gave them a year to go from having trouble with basic addition and subtraction, to learning the quadratic equation.

Needless to say, they failed horribly, even with extra math classes and assistance.

One would expect that if a child failed a class, that the next year they would repeat it so as to get a passing grade. In the case of my daughters, they were just pushed into the next level of math. So they went from basic math to Algebra 1. My eldest decided to change her diploma to one of the “alternative” diplomas due to this very issue, and wound up wasting an entire school year. She was receiving grades on things like watching movies! That was how little these people thought of the children who opted to go for one of the alternative diplomas (either due to special needs or due to just giving up). Anything to keep those graduation numbers up!

Oregon offers the standard diploma, a modified diploma (which has “lowered” requirements in the core classes and double the amount of electives), an extended diploma (which only requires half the credits of a regular degree AND has lowered requirements), and an alternative certificate (basically you’re just a warm body that gets counted to help bring in money and you get to walk across the stage at graduation). The reason for this is that with the push towards higher levels of STEM classes and the push for students to go into STEM fields, students began failing to meet requirements to graduate.  Instead of reevaluating the situation and possibly changing the graduation requirements to meet those of another state (each state has its own requirements for graduation! There is no “federal standard”!), they decided to create new diploma options, many of which are little more than a piece of paper.

With a modified diploma you cannot get into a four year university. You have a chance at getting into a community college, but you’re most likely going to be making up for lost time with remedial classes and thus wasting your financial aid and being forced to take out student loans. Trade school acceptance is a crap shoot. You cannot enlist in the military for the most part, and you will find yourself having difficulty finding work since it is a “lesser” diploma.

With an extended diploma or an alternative certificate….yeah. You might as well just go for your GED.

We are cutting music, literature, art, and humanities classes at a frightening rate in our high schools while continuing to push for our students to excel in math, science, and English. We are forgetting that while it is good to have a focus on STEM subjects, and that STEM fields are important, so are the non-STEM fields.

In Oregon, we lump foreign language, the arts, and career and technical education (CTE) into one category. Children need three credits (years) to graduate with a standard diploma, but the school pushes for students to either learn a foreign language or focus on the CTE classes. Math, social sciences, and science require three credits each, English requires four credits, health (another science class) requires one credit, and physical education requires one credit. Children also have to earn six credits of “electives”.

We need literature, music, art, and all of the other fields. We are beginning to suffer as a society due to our children not learning anything more than a cursory once over of these subjects. Many children don’t read outside of what is required for school since reading for pleasure is seen as a waste of time in many cases. If a child starts showing interest in music or art teachers begin to try to steer them towards a field with a “better future”.

We have the science to prove that we need these fields, and that children need to learn about and immerse themselves in these fields; yet we are continuing to cut them from our curriculum at an alarming rate, replacing them with “elective” classes. When a child sees that their favorite subject is an “elective” versus a “core” class, they begin to look down on it. It happened to me, it happened to my husband, and it has happened to my kids.

To this very day I still have to fight that the social sciences are valid options for a field of study. I get told that if it’s not a “natural science” then it’s worthless. I get told that my preferred fields of study (psychology and sociology) are bullsh*t. Heck, people even grade the social sciences as some being more “science” than others, just to justify their attacks on certain fields.

If people are doing this with the social sciences, you can just imagine what they are doing with the arts and humanities fields.

We need to stop treating STEM fields as the high lord and master and remember that we need ALL fields of study to be able to be a well rounded society. We need to stop shaming people who wish to go into the non-STEM fields, and we need to stop telling our children that they won’t be able to be successful unless they go into either a STEM field or into the medical field.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

One thought on “STEMming the tide”

  1. I agree we do need all areas of study in order to have a well rounded educated society, and we can see the affect of not having that even now, with the emphasis on testing over actually teaching, we have many teenagers who have difficulty reading and writing to a level we were capable of at sometimes half their age!
    But, this also goes hand in hand with general ignorance, we have in America, as you well know we have a massive argument about climate change and the deniers out there who can look at the actual evidence and draw totally incorrect or misinformed conclusions, i.e. not even being able to read a graph trend.

    We have evolution deniers also, and while I am not sure on which side of the fence you (the op not Phil) are on regarding that, the evidence is pretty overwhelming in support of evolutionary theory. These are not, complex scientific theories (there even is debate about the phrase “theory”).

    Maybe some of that does stem (no pun intended) from the lack of all around education, I still make jokes in front of my children and peers that reference Shakespeare, or will quote something from a classic novel and will be met with a blank stare, I will listen to classical music (and get excited about it, and know the composer and other works they have done) I grew up around the theatre industry and have seen a multitude of art from pantomime to opera from classic painters to contemporary splodgers (my niece, in fact is doing an art degree in Falmouth, despite her being also very good at the sciences, she is also a fantastic artist, I support her in all she is doing, if you have a talent go for it, (it would be nice if we as a society did not require such a high living wage so people who do not take the business/science/engineering route could afford to support themselves and pursue their desire after achieving a degree in a none science subject)

    Another issue I see though is the almost blanket requirement now for some sort of degree to get a job, and it does not matter what that degree is, point in case, the US military requires a degree to be a commissioned officer (for the most part) it does not care what that degree is, just as long as they have one. Many employers require degrees for even the most basic of positions, and will employ someone with an unrelated degree and little experience over someone without a degree and a lot of experience (I have felt this first hand, being part of the latter crowd – and yes my knuckles have scrapes on them from dragging them on the ground as I walk).

    Many of the people I meet at work all have degrees, and yet, I am not sure what they actually learned, they know very little of the classics, geography history (even the history of their own country) art, science, I am sure there is something business related that they are very good at (or accounting) but their overall education is very lacking in many areas, when you have to explain to people why you chose the names of some famous artists because all they could think of were the ninja turtles, you start to question the education system as a whole.

    Another thing, I think unique to the US is the pre requisite requirements for a degree, one thing that has stopped me from pursuing one in the states is the number of credit hours in english and other unrelated “fluff” for a degree in computer science, at a couple of hundred dollars a credit hour it becomes expensive to cover something I probably did at high school, and usually about as in depth too, can I do it? yes of course, does it have value? no not really, if you are not going to cover a subject deeply and merely use it as a tool to boost credit hours (or the bottom line), it devalues the degree as a whole, I would rather have spent that time learning more about the subject I was interested in rather than re hashing or skimming other subjects, do I need to do a creative writing 101 course when I am trying to get a degree in maths? likewise do I need to do a algebra 101 course when I am trying to get a degree in english history?

    The push for maths and science in America, (and the withholding of religion from public schools) seems to have performed the actual reverse of the intention, we now seem to have an overly religious unscientific population, (who is also bad at art, history, and has little interest in anything that is not reality TV and sports-ball).

    philosophy psychology sociology are all required to ask the questions, pose the ideas and understand the way we behave, without them we would not have effective advertising, political campaigns, crowd control methods, ergonomics, the things we take for granted now, we would not understand mental illness, and how to treat it, we may not also have the inspiration to experiment based on a philosophical question or statement made by another.

    As I mentioned earlier though, we are not a society right now that supports the pursuit of a none money making degree or discipline, maybe if we ever reach the enlightenment of star trek or similar we will, until then we will continue to force emphasis on things that either make money or make a living, and not necessarily betterment of the species as a whole.

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