The STEM distinction in a liberal arts academic community

Jonathan Logan & Caroline Ward – S&E editors

Science, technology, engineering and math: the disciplines now synonymous with educational progress grouped together under the acronym STEM. American interest in each individual field has always existed, but it was the competitive brinkmanship of the Cold War that compelled studies like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1969 to compare the mathematical and scientific abilities of students in similar countries. A nuclear arms race and space race between the developed superpowers then ensured that each field would remain important in the public’s eye for generations to come. 

The acronym “STEM” was first used in 2001 as an offhand moniker by a Department of Education official. U.S. representatives Vernon Ehlers and Mark Udall consolidated its place in the American vernacular in 2005 with the formation of the “STEM
caucus” in Congress. Thus, owing to their perceived economic importance and national security implications, the fields were matched and happily married to one another as initiatives, clubs and programs now suffuse academic institutions. Students at The College of Wooster might think of the STEM Zone, a “learning community” sponsored by the STEM Success Initiative (SSI) or Minorities in STEM (MiSTEM), a “student lead organization with the goal to promote underrepresented minority and neurodivergent student involvement”
in STEM fields. However, STEM in higher education is perhaps more discordant with
the traditions of the liberal arts than they are in modern, professional forms of education. Example: engineering and technology do not fall under the umbrella of liberal arts but are
considered professional disciplines by most institutions. In addition to the sciences and mathematics, the liberal arts have also housed the humanities, social sciences and creative arts. 

The question of utility leads many to ponder the economic feasibility of pursuing a liberal arts education in recent years. A growing list of colleges and universities, like the University of Akron and Ohio Wesleyan, are nixing humanities programs in the name of saving money or allocating more funds to STEM departments. This actualizes the sense that the gap between the classically liberal arts fields of, for example, the physical sciences and history is much wider than it really is. Thus, one might finally question whether or not STEM is an acronym used to brand the perceived economic utility of a degree, and whether or not the distinction is creating divisions between the humanities, social sciences, creative arts and science and math at liberal
arts institutions. These divisions may not be explicit, but could instead exist in less apparent unspoken forms. The Voice asked students from varying disciplines at the College whether they feel that there is an academic division at Wooster.
Mia Mann ’24, a junior history and anthropology major responded: “I do feel that there is a large gap between the humanities and STEM majors; I don’t believe that The College of Wooster is necessarily unique in this particular sort of division, but it is certainly apparent nonetheless.” On the contrary, some students, such as Bolanle Oladeji ’23, a senior computer science major, contended that “I do not think there is a sense of academic
division at Wooster, at least not in my experience. I think this is because we are at a liberal arts college and everyone has experienced at least a class in almost all the disciplines.” Many respondents reframed the question by elaborating on existing divisions due to the structure of many degree programs at the College: majors tend to form cohorts as they approach independent study and complete their liberal arts requirements.

Zoë Semersky
’23, a senior biochemistry and molecular biology (BCMB) major suggested that “because this is a liberal arts institution though, students on either side of STEM or the humanities/social sciences must engage in a broad range of coursework. I’d
acknowledge that these spheres should not exist independently.” She continued with “I would say more of progressive isolation than academic division. As you progress through a degree, I feel like it becomes comfortable to tuck into the department of a given major.”
Max Forhan ’24, a junior archeology and classics double major echoed this sentiment, saying “I would say yes, there is some academic division at Wooster. It may not take the form of division between individuals, but I think there is some unspoken barrier between STEM spaces/clubs and humanities spaces/clubs.” Many students alluded to this unspoken barrier, and, for some students, it focused on the inaccessibility of interdisciplinary study.

Morgan Malone ’23, a senior political science major, explained “I do wish, however, that students got to be exposed to fields of study that they are not typically exposed to. As a political science major, I have little to no information about the STEM studies or courses.” STEM majors like Semersky concur:“It’s equally important to acknowledge that STEM (and especially BCMB) can appear intimidating to outsiders, but we are taking steps to appeal to and welcome those from other areas.” However, bridging this gap is difficult, made no less so by the disproportionate value placed on STEM and non-STEM fields
respectively. STEM fields are not only perceived as politically and economically more valuable, but STEM-related careers are typically valued greater socially.

A Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent of U.S. adults believe that “compared with jobs in other industries, jobs in science, technology, engineering and math attract more of the brightest and most qualified young people.” Moreover, 60 percent of those
respondents who held jobs in non-STEM-related industries believed the same. Mann agrees that their major, history, “is commonly known but frequently written off as a waste of money, or regarded as a field for aspiring professors and/or high school teachers.
More than a few times, upon mentioning my major choices to other students, I have been met with a comment regarding the lack of financial stability I will face upon graduation. STEM professions, on the other hand, are viewed as stable financial choices and respectable fields to follow in order to support a family in the future.”

The same Pew poll also found 71 percent of U.S. adults believe that jobs in STEM offer higher pay. Kayla Stevens ’23, a senior anthropology major added that “there is still the commonly held view that non-STEM majors are ‘easier,’ or don’t help us develop solid skills for post-college life. I haven’t heard this said directly by anyone at Wooster, but I do whether those who aren’t humanities or social sciences majors feel this way at the [College].” While students interviewed by The Voice generally expressed little to no explicit disrespect toward their major, some pointed out that the culture of various departments lends itself to assumptions.

In that vein, Mann said “I will not pretend there are no associated stereotypes that we humanities students associate with specific disciplines, but I will also say that such stereotypes are not reserved specifically for STEM majors and are also attached to various humanities archetypes as well.” Mann also stated: “I would say that my peers in humanities hold great respect for STEM students because we all acknowledge the difficulty that comes with the course requirements and the competitive nature of those fields.” Oladeji offered a STEM perspective: “I think generally, some people might have the sense that STEM is maybe harder to study than the humanities. But I think Wooster students realize that we all are in different fields and having an understanding of the humanities as a STEM student helps me become a more well rounded individual.” A
statistic published by the previously mentioned Pew report found that 53 percent of respondents feel that STEM professions are more well-respected, with 54 percent of those holding non-STEM jobs concurring.

Every department maintains its own identity, carefully curated through course offerings, language and research. The long-term challenge for departments at liberal arts colleges, in terms of sewing up or avoiding academic divisions, will be to determine to what degree they collaborate with other departments from other disciplines. A 2019 Forbes article authored by the President of Alma College, Jeff Abernathy, argued that collaboration between two or more disciplines at small liberal arts institutions is “absolutely necessary.” While STEM takes center stage and economic progress remains at the center of many political conversations in the world of hyper specialization, the liberal arts can set itself apart by championing collaboration.

Dr. Karl Feierabend, chair of the chemistry department at the College, offered his opinion on promoting research across the disciplines: “For a liberal arts institution to thrive, I think it’s critical that collaboration between the traditional academic divisions be encouraged and incentivized. I’m proud to have colleagues in chemistry and biology who have formed scholarly partnerships with faculty in the arts. Whether it’s creating FYS courses that reach across disciplines or advising double majors, interaction with our colleagues in humanities and arts helps us demonstrate the value of a Wooster education.” What constitutes a STEM field and what that definition implies will continue to be debated for years to come, especially as technology stokes potential conflict in cases such as U.S., Taiwan and China. But in small-town Ohio, students across all disciplines and backgrounds at The College of Wooster voice an array of feelings on perceived divisions between STEM and humanities, social sciences and creative arts. With falling
enrollment rates in small, liberal arts colleges and a current culture deeply invested in the success of STEM, these institutions are presented with both a predicament and an opportunity: to re-establish themselves as collaborative, interdisciplinary institutions with STEM in consensus, not contradiction, with their ethos.

One thought on “The STEM distinction in a liberal arts academic community

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