Taking the steam out of STEM

stemFor the last few years, there have been many calls and articles about the importance of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. I’ve seen the acronym used most often in US-based communications, but it’s seen as an issue in other countries as well; for example, in South Africa we tend to talk about “Maths and Science”. The STEM proponents say the growing these skills is the only way we will be able to ensure employment in a world that is becoming more automated and smarter. But I am now hearing a different view, that there is more to work and life than maths and science skills.

In 2007 Geoffrey Moore started arguing a new case – the revenge of the liberal arts graduates – saying that as we move from computing to communications, this new connected world will place

an enormous premium on people who are fluent in communications.

It took a while to catch on, but in 2015 there have been a number of articles that are pushing the ‘arts’ argument.

An article in the Harvard Business Review titled Build STEM Skills, but Don’t Neglect the Humanities argued that we need a STEMMA focus – the M referring to management, and A to Arts.

how could it be beneficial to the future to deemphasize the arts, which inform our knowledge of beauty and meaning in human affairs? All the brilliant discoveries of STEM will not solve the grand challenges of today’s world — ignorance, poverty, intolerance, and political conflict – without the practical wisdom of humanities-trained leaders.

… It is only through the humanities that we will be able to appreciate the answers that superintelligent computers will give us when we ask them the hard questions. It is only through the humanities that we will increasingly recognize and build on what we humans uniquely are. It is through STEM plus MA progress that we have the chance to become practically wise.

Analyst Vinnie Mirchandani on his New Florence blog alerted me to an interview with a NASA astronaut Leland Melvin who uses the term STEAM (A=Arts).

My passion with the “A” is that it helps us be inclusive in school and also promotes project-based learning … Project-based learning is what prepares students for real-world problem solving

The issue was discussed in another Harvard Business School article which asked the question:

As machines increasingly perform complex tasks once thought to be safely reserved for humans, the question has become harder to shrug off: What jobs will be left for people?

and answered it with:

it’ll be those that require strong social skills — which it defines as the ability to work with others — something that has proven to be much more difficult to automate.

citing research that showed:

nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations that are relatively social skill-intensive … high-skilled, hard-to-automate jobs will increasingly demand social adeptness.

It appears that social skills are still important.

  1. They are valued in jobs across the entire wage distribution
  2. Social and cognitive skills are complementary not competing
  3. Work that only needs low levels of social skills are also likely to be routine jobs that have a high risk of automation.

Taking somewhat of a middle ground was a 2014 article on Medium that discussed the essential skills needed to survive the new future of work. Technology was one needed skill, but problem solving and self-management were the other essential skills.

As someone whose degree was more in arts than science, and got into the tech industry almost by accident, I am glad to see that arts are starting to make a comeback. The difficulty from a personal perspective is that I am surrounded at home by family members with engineering and medical backgrounds who believe that an arts education is a wasted one. Next time the issue comes up, I will try to use the points raised in this blog.


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