Monday, September 28, 2015

A Consideration of the STEM Fields and the Humanities
by Thomas Reilly
As an Honors Ambassador, I work with sixty-four incredibly accomplished students in order to represent the Honors Program. From my time giving tours and speaking with many high school and first year students, I have noticed a pattern whenever I ask them what they would like to study. It seems that I receive one of two answers: either they cautiously stutter their intentions, or they give their answers with confidence, sometimes even with arrogance. These students almost always intend to major in a STEM field, and their confidence reflects society’s prominent emphasis of technical training over the social sciences and the humanities. This phenomenon proves all the more salient at the University of Florida where the Shands medical complex is steps away from classrooms and where more than $323 million dollars of the university’s $619 million research awards are health-related. The humanities intertwine with the sciences more than many realize, and while the division between them is understandable, there are resources to reconcile it.
Scheduling often bars STEM students from humanities courses. Admittedly, one look at the regimented critical tracking requirements for a chemical engineer confirms that time often does not permit supplementary coursework. Although some majors, like Chemistry or Mathematics, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences also encounter this problem, CLAS is generally more flexible even when a preprofessional track is thrown into the mix. Haley Oberhofer is a third-year chemistry and anthropology dual major on the premedical track, a diverse combination that she explains in the following way: “I hope to become a craniofacial surgeon and to work in developing countries.  Biomedical and cultural anthropology will be extremely pertinent in my future profession. In order to treat patients, we have to know and understand their backgrounds.” In Haley’s case, a humanistic foundation is at least as practical as taking additional STEM courses, which hopefully expels the notion that disciplines like anthropology are a leisurely indulgence that students cannot afford.
In fact, the entire idea of humanity is inextricable from the STEM fields. Matt Salis is a fourth-year mechanical engineering major involved with UF’s Design Build Fly team, which creates radio-controlled aircrafts for competition. When asked if he felt his coursework to be gratifying, he reflected, “My relationship with my classes is that I don’t hate them. I find fulfillment within the actual application of engineering principles; I have found most of this fulfillment within the design team I work on. For me there is a huge difference in terms of fulfillment between solving practice problems in the classroom and performing the analysis, design work, and manufacturing of an aircraft. This difference lies mostly in the creative element within design engineering.” The difference between a physics class and an art history class thus seems to be that one applies what the other seeks to understand, i.e. being human. Without the desire to improve the human condition much of the world’s scientific advancement would never have come into being, therefore begging the question: how effectively can you help that which you do not understand?
For many STEM students, the Center for European Studies has the potential to ease this imbalance. The Center was the first in the nation to receive funding from the European Union in order to establish its Jean Monnet Center of Excellence, through which it hosts guest lectures and workshops - opportunities that require little time investment from a busy physics major. Additionally, many companies and firms collaborate with their European counterparts and therefore value employees who can make connections with English engineers or Russian researchers. For students whose professional goals would benefit from becoming bilingual, not only does Center offer classes in less common (and therefore more marketable) languages such as Hungarian and Turkish but it also distributes Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships, which provide funds for students in all subjects to study European languages.
The separation of knowledge into discrete domains, as universities must unavoidably implement, is illusory. Descartes, for example, married philosophy and mathematics in his influential legacy, while Wittgenstein studied mechanical engineering and aeronautics before contributing to our understanding of language. In the same way, students today must recognize the importance of the humanities and their relationship to the sciences – a relationship not of discord but of harmony.

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