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Too much emphasis on STEM leaves us without flowers

• Apr 11, 2019 at 3:00 PM

S.T.E.M. has been a big push in recent years. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and math. It is what employers say they need in terms of skills and competencies of new employees. Therefore, it is what is being stressed in schools, at both the K-12 and college level.

But it is, ironically, not done with careful measurement that are the hallmarks of science, technology, engineering and math.

A former neighbor who is an educator moved to Florida several years ago. In his new school district, where he is teaching English, he is mandated to assign the students papers on science topics because of S.T.E.M. He asked me, if you taught English, wouldn’t you have students write about Chaucer or some classic literature? No, he must tell his students to write about global warming, gaming interfaces, or I don’t know what other science topics.

Even as S.T.E.M. is emphasized as school subjects and employer needs, there is a cautionary tale emerging about when all of us infuse our lives with too much S.T.E.M. and not enough of the arts and humanities. There have been a plethora of articles and books about this recently. There is MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together,” warning about the loss of human ability at relationships because of the prevalence of technology. A newer book by Douglas Rushkoff called “Team Human” insists that we must resist the technical media landscape that is stealing our humanity. There was a New York Times op-ed pointing out that Steve Jobs of Apple never intended the iPhone to be ubiquitous and take over our lives.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed a Georgetown University computer science professor who has no social media accounts and points out to people that eschewing them leads to more productivity and, hear this, creativity. The New York Times reported on a study by researchers at New York University and Stanford University that found that people who got off social media had more free time, happier moods and deeper relationships.

In other words, while S.T.E.M. is important, so are the arts, humanities, creativity and other subjects.

Employers say this, too. They don’t only want S.T.E.M. skills. Study after study I read shows they want employees with good communication skills, critical thinking, creativity, adaptability and other things associated less with S.T.E.M. than with other fields, such as my own field of advertising and public relations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment of public relations specialists to grow by 9 percent from 2016-2026, as fast as the average for other fields, and they have a limited definition of what public relations people do, so the number is likely higher.

Author Daniel Pink has written and spoken extensively about the importance and need for the “creative class.” In my own experience, there is a huge need for advertising and public relations professionals, and my former students are well employed all over the world. Many of them do advertising and public relations for organizations in the technology, health and engineering sectors — S.T.E.M.-related employers who need communications.

So, this all becomes a personal problem for me when the state government appropriates money for new university buildings that favor S.T.E.M. at the expense of other fields. I wish our government leaders would do the math, no pun intended. They need to realize that Michigan’s universities are independent, not one system. And while other state universities may need S.T.E.M. buildings, GVSU has added numerous academic facilities to cater to these fields.

In my time at the university, I’ve seen the construction of two new science buildings, three new health buildings, an engineering building and a later expansion, and a computer science building. Meanwhile, my colleagues and I in communications — and our significantly expanded number of students — remain in a building constructed in the 1960s.

I could make the case that there actually is a lot of science, technology, engineering and math in advertising and public relations. The field has evolved with the computer age to require skills in digital media, analytics, the collection and use of data, and has always had a basis in research.

But over-emphasis on S.T.E.M. also goes against student interest. There are more than 500 students majoring in advertising and public relations at GVSU, and many more in other non-S.T.E.M. fields. They come from families who pay state taxes. They are in demand by employers. They have a right to choose a degree and career path in line with their interests and talents. Government support for them should be equitable, not biased toward an untenable emphasis on a select set of academic fields.

I mentioned Steve Jobs earlier, the founder and former CEO of Apple, arguably the most influential tech company and one that obviously is driven by S.T.E.M. skills. But Jobs, who actually studied art and typography, not any S.T.E.M. field, has this pithy quote about his company’s DNA and reason for its success that I have tacked to my campus office door: “It is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”

Indeed. S.T.E.M. and other arts and humanities and liberal arts fields must go together. We can’t favor one over the other. For this reason, some add the “A” for arts to the acronym to yield S.T.E.A.M.

I am reminded of Holland’s Tulip Time in 2012, the year spring came early and the flowers had fallen before tourists arrived for the annual festival of colorful flowers. The locals made jokes, and even T-shirts, about that year being “stem fest.” They had pictures of just green stems emerging from soil, with no flowers. It was funny, but not what people wanted.

Yes, S.T.E.M. fields, like flower stems, are vital and necessary. But they aren’t all that’s needed. We all want flowers, too. Let’s give some due emphasis to that again.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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