Why STEM majors need the humanities, and vice versa

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Why STEM majors need the humanities, and vice versa

Despite debates about the comparative value of the humanities and STEM, the two are more compatible than you may think, argues Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist, in NPR.

Gleiser, a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College, teaches a course that culturally contextualizes scientific thought. Commonly referred to as “physics for poets” by students, the course treats science and humanities as complementary ways of understanding the world, writes Gleiser.

When the lecture ventures into equations or philosophy, it’s easy to guess each student’s academic background—and that’s not a good sign, he writes. Humanities students tend to deflate when math appears, whereas STEM students perk up. And when the class reads philosophy, the opposite happens.

The differences in how students interact with the course reveals the underlying divide between STEM and the humanities in higher ed, he argues. As the gulf between STEM and humanities widens, both disciplines lose nuance, he argues. Scientists may overlook the social consequences of technological innovation, and humanists may lose sight of technology’s effect on the world.

To expose students to other disciplines, science courses should grapple with original texts, while humanities classes should tackle scientific concepts, he recommends. Research topics like climate change or artificial intelligence don’t fall neatly into STEM or the humanities—to fully understand any concept requires an interdisciplinary investigation, he argues.

Some institutions recognize the importance of humanities-trained scientists and vice versa. Cornell University, for example, recently debuted a data science ethics course that explores the ethical gray areas data scientists face every day. Similarly, Wellesley College and Davidson College have incorporated more STEM courses into traditionally humanities-focused curriculums (Gleiser, NPR, 4/2/18).

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