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STEM students should study humanities

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22nd-Jul-2018       
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Elizabeth Koprowski :
Once upon a time, the humanities reigned supreme in the halls of higher education. Philosophy, literature, languages, and rhetoric were seen as the pinnacles of learning and the world's greatest minds were as comfortable with iambic pentameter as they were with the quadratic equation. But as society has shifted towards innovation and technological development, the human sciences are often neglected or disdained as soft subjects without practical application. But there's a reason that the arts and humanities were the foundation of academia - and it's not just because rhyme and music make memorizing the periodic table a lot easier. We're not suggesting that students with STEM aspirations abandon the hard sciences, but here's why a minor in a liberal arts subject could provide the balance that's needed for future success.
1. Broaden your Career View
Science doesn't happen in a vacuum, and even in the most sterile lab environment outside forces will have a big impact on the direction of your research and your job prospects. It may not be ideal, but the reality of the scientific world is that research funding is often dictated by politics, and scientific projects can be dependent on cultural shifts. Think about current events and the ways in which politicians leverage infectious diseases, climate science, and technological breakthroughs. And while science students often imagine careers in sterile, white laboratories, STEM subjects and the non-science world are constantly colliding. The recent Zika-virus outbreak in South America is a perfect example of the ways in which science, politics, social planning, and marketing must work together. STEM professionals need to understand not just how the natural world works, but how they can apply their knowledge and skills to real-world issues.
2. Communicate Clearly
Liberal arts won't just help you apply your scientific expertise to problems, they will help you communicate with the non-science world. Face it, scientific and technological research can be difficult to understand if you're not an expert. And just like Schrodinger's famously misinterpreted cat, lay-people often misunderstand the scientific world, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Learning to write clearly, to construct a rhetorical argument, and to simplify complex ideas are essential tools for the modern STEM professional.
3. Understand the World and its Inhabitants
Neuroscience may teach you how the human brain functions and physics promises that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But people are not just electrical impulses and their reactions aren't always predictable. Literature, poetry, music, and art are all expressions of individual feelings and studying them can help students understand both the world and the minds of other individuals. And, ironically enough, this may be a more important skill for a scientist than a creative writing student. Scientists must understand how their work will effect both the world and individuals in order to innovate.
4. Reinforce Cultural and Ethical Responsibility
But understanding the world isn't just about empathy and innovation. J. Robert Oppenheimer is famous for saying "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds" but the physicist was actually quoting from Hindu scripture. And as science and technology progress, it's important to constantly reassess the ethical and cultural impact of the development. Doing this requires a thorough understanding of the literary, cultural, religious, and social influences that impact society. Reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein isn't just an exercise in literary analysis and nineteenth century literature. The story questions the morality of scientific innovation and the responsibility of the scientist to both his creations and the world. Future scientists take note - the monster in Shelley's horror story isn't the creature.
5. Foreign Languages are a Must!
As kindergarteners we learn that sharing is caring, and in the world of scientific and technological research, collaboration is key. This means that successful STEM professionals will often find themselves working in multi-cultural teams, cooperating with international facilities, or communicating across borders and boundaries. Scientists with foreign-language skills will find this multinational environment a lot easier to navigate. As you continue your studies, start considering your areas of concentration and the regions of the world where those industries are most common. English, Chinese, and Spanish are the most prevalent languages in the world, but studying French or German will open doors in both technological and political arenas. Japanes, Korean, and Arabic are also smart choices. Don't forget Latin and Greek, which are vital to students of medicine and botany. But your language choice doesn't even need to be strategic - even studying an obscure language can give your brain and your career a boost!
(Elizabeth Koprowski is an American writer and travel historian. She has worked in the higher education system with international students both in Europe and in the USA).

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