'Humanities Folks' Need to Pay Attention to STEM, and Vice Versa

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 10.21.14 PMGuest Blog by Adora Svitak
USA Science & Engineering Festival Youth Advisory Board Member

Note: See Adora as part of the Teen Inventors Panel at the Festival on the Lockheed Martin Stage! 

When I was little, I hated a lot of things. I refused to practice piano or violin. I didn't eat my leafy vegetables. But most of all I hated math. By extension, I disliked anything that stank of equations: physics, chemistry, technology, engineering. After falling in love with Corinthian columns and the University of Washington's collegiate-Gothic buildings, I wanted to be an architect... until I realized that you needed to use math, and then my dreams dissolved faster than a tiny quantity of solute in an overwhelming amount of solvent.

Of all the things I could've picked to hate, math and science seemed to make sense. It was publicly reviled; lots of people said openly, "I'm bad at math and science."

And then something changed. Beneath my feet, I felt a sea change in public opinion about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Once, you were something special if you knew how to program; now, people were calling coding the new literacy and saying that you were lost in the 21st century if you didn't know at least a few computer languages. Suddenly C++ and C#, Python and JavaScript, HTML/CSS and Ruby on Rails came up in everyday conversation. The Math Team nerds became some of my best friends. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the importance of STEM.

The evolution of my own opinions about STEM culminated with joining the USA Science and Engineering Festival's Youth Advisory Board, a team including peers who have won the Intel Science Fair, started companies, and founded research journals. Needless to say, I felt a tad bit out of place. Whether in school or at work, it's tempting to treat disparate fields as entirely separate disciplines, to describe ourselves as "humanities folks" or "STEM people" alone. But I've realized through my work on the USASEF board that interdisciplinary learning is absolutely crucial to me as a "humanities person" and to my friends in STEM.

Studying the intersection of STEM and the humanities reveals a rich history of cultural progress and social change. Isaac Asimov taught biochemistry at Boston University and wrote bestselling science-fiction stories that remain classics to this day. Hedy Lamarr acted in acclaimed films and helped develop an essential technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping. John James Audubon's ornithology would be hardly as famous were it not illustrated thanks to his skillful painting ability. In the modern day, graduate student Jie Qi at the MIT Media Lab brings together "high-low tech" with her artistic designs that blend electronics and computation with paper -- for instance, a complex network of LEDs beneath a traditional Chinese painting of a dandelion, sending lit-up dandelion "seeds" scattering at a single breath. Standing in front of her artwork as a 15-year-old still struggling against the "I hate STEM" mindset, I could hardly believe that the beauty I was seeing was the child of circuits and code.

In an age where public interest in the arts (ask yourself when the last time you went to the art museum, the ballet, or the symphony was) seems to be waning, and worried parents often criticize humanities majors for not choosing a more "stable" field, perhaps an interdisciplinary approach is what we need. With approaches like Jie's that seamlessly weave together art and science, we can reach wider audiences. Instead of taking an adversarial approach, let's recognize a simple truth: STEM and the humanities need each other.

On the USA Science and Engineering Festival youth advisory board, I quickly realized that my skills as an event organizer and writer worked well in concert with the science and research-heavy skills of my fellow board members. Needless to say, today I'm not the same kid I was when I declared, "I hate math!" In fact, I've reclaimed something entirely different from my childhood. Despite my aversion to formal lessons about science and math, I can remember always being in awe of the nature and beauty around me. I asked as many "what if" questions as I could. I got excited when my dad drove my sister and me out of the range of city lights to deserted rural trails to get the best view of meteor showers. There, I'd stare up at the stars and try to trace every constellation.

In an effort to bring that feeling to everyone, no matter how distant childhood seems to be, the USASEF youth advisory board is hosting an event, STEMspiration, on April 24 in Washington, D.C. We've coined the term "STEMspiration" to mean "the process of being mentally stimulated or motivated to change the world through science and technology." Though my STEMspiration may have come later for me than for many of my peers, I'm still soaking up the benefits. If those of us in STEM want to create technology that makes sense, we need to understand the human condition and all the sensitivities, emotions, and experiences that can't be put into algorithms. If those of us in the humanities want to fully understand the qualities of being human in this day and age, we need to realize that it encapsulates developments outside our libraries and philosophy classes too. In short, knowing how to program an Arduino and use HTML doesn't make me any less of a "humanities person." In fact, I'd argue that it makes me a better one.

Follow Adora Svitak on Twitter: www.twitter.com/adorasv


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