6.23.2017

STEM, Plus

There has been a lot of attention on the so-called STEM careers - science, technology, engineering,
and math - and rightly so.  At a national level, we are falling behind other countries in STEM performance in the classroom and in the workforce.  At a local level, we rightly recognize the importance of early STEM exposure to kids in communities already beset by high unemployment, lest we inadequately prepare them for the kinds of jobs that they will be competing for when they grow up.  All well and good.

However.  If, in advocating for STEM, we run roughshod over the importance of a strong liberal arts education, I would like to get off the bandwagon.  The liberal arts have been beat up of late, whether it is mocking students going into debt to get degrees that seem to have no connection to our modern economy, or hating on students even more for having so much privilege that they can do something as seemingly wasteful as that.

To be sure, if college is just about partying, skating by on a fun major, and then wondering aloud why the economy has left you behind, then that's one thing.  But there is still much to gain from a strong liberal arts training.  As we study the brain more and more, we are learning so much about how innovation happens, and a lot of what is important relates to drawing from diverse perspectives.

This has implications for how we assemble teams as well as how each team member can best play their part.  "Connecting the dots" requires knowing something about many different dots, and the more disparate the more interesting the connections.  As a result, paradoxically the best way to be the best in a given field is to intentionally not just study stuff in that field, but to make sure we are rounding out our information intake with other subjects, even things that seem wildly irrelevant.

Two examples from my undergraduate days.  The first was before I was even a student.  I was visiting the Penn campus during my senior year in high school, and had a chance to meet the person who would be my Wharton advisor.  As we chatted in his office, one of his students, a sophomore, popped her head in the office and said she had gotten a random opportunity to study marine biology in the Caribbean.  Without hesitation, my future advisor said, "Go."  She protested, saying she was a finance major and was angling for an investment banking job upon graduation.  "Wall Street can wait," was his reply.  "Go to the Caribbean and expand your horizons."

The second was during my freshman stat class.  A number of my classmates were also on the finance track, and moaned aloud about the science requirements they had to gut through.  "What does physics have to do with my aspiration to be an investment banker," wondered the ringleader of this group.  Without blinking, our stat prof launched into an extemporaneous lecture on the famous Black-Scholes formula, which is the standard equation used to value stock options.  Turns out it is based on an equation from physics, and its fundamental insight (Black, Scholes, and Merton would win a Nobel Prize for this) was that models used to manage the unpredictability of particles in motion could be applied to the unpredictability of financial assets as well.  My classmates' jaws were agape, and if our stat prof had a mic he would've dropped it and exited stage right.

And so it is that while I cheer on those who are advocating for the STEM fields, I am also hoping that we are saying yes to the liberal arts too. 
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