Face-Off: The STEM Perspective

STEM: Quantitative Supremacy? (Photograph courtesy of Mission College)

STEM: Quantitative Supremacy? (Photograph courtesy of Mission College)

October 2012. I sit down at my computer, open Google Docs, and type my name in the upper left corner. A one page paper on the illegitimacy of love at first sight, in the context of the play Romeo and Juliet, is due tomorrow. The argumentation has already formulated in my head: Love at first sight is simply an intense attraction to the aesthetics of another person, and hence is not a true form of love. But I struggle to expand my thoughts and formulate them on paper—the process of knowing what I want to argue, but struggling to find the words to properly express my opinions, serves as a constant source of frustration as I write. It was in this moment that I first began to recognize that my academic passions do not lie with writing and the humanities.

However, this realization developed slowly, and the humanities still comprised the large majority of my high school career. I studied Classics industriously, not only during Latin class, but also on weekends and throughout the summers, and I competed at a grand total of eleven regional, state, and national Latin conventions. On a given day in July, while clear blue skies served as a backdrop to the radiant California sun, my friends would find me inside, situated in my computer chair with the curtains drawn, reading Private Life of the Romans or reviewing some notes on Greek derivatives. Yet here I am today, intending to focus my academic pursuits for the next three years almost exclusively on physics and computer science.

I have immersed myself in both the Humanities and in STEM, and I strongly affirm that the latter emerges as the superior collegiate area of study. We must first recognize that attending college is not as much about what one learns, but rather about the benefits he receives from the learning process. Every Classics major knows that the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 A.D., and every physics major knows that taking the antiderivative of the wave function squared computes the probability of finding an electron within certain bounds. But this concrete knowledge, in itself, has almost no utility outside of academia. Indeed, the critical thinking abilities and problem solving skills we develop as we learn new and difficult concepts possess the true utility. There is a steep learning curve at the beginning of any new job and, the sharper our learning skills are, the more efficiently we can beat the curve. The more honed our problem-solving skills are, the more likely we are to develop revolutionary, innovative solutions to time-worn problems. Collegiate learning derives its value not from the concrete knowledge and facts we gain, but rather from how it reinforces our problem solving skills and improves our ability to learn at a faster rate.

But do all subjects across the academic spectrum provide equal cerebral refinement? Certainly not. Myriad studies have proven that STEM majors are “smarter” than majors in other fields. Indeed, a study conducted in 1952 by Dael Wolfle and Toby Oxtoby compared scores on the Army General Classification Test (AGCT; the modern equivalent is the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) from a sample of ten thousand college graduates from forty different universities. The median score of students in physical sciences or engineering ranged from 129-130 while students of the humanities scored a median of 127. The discrepancy is much more distinct in several other studies. When we examine the average math and verbal scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) from 2005, we see that engineering majors scored at a median of 594 while humanities majors lagged behind at a median of 560. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), responsible for writing a wide variety of tests including the GRE and the TOEFL, also releases data on the average IQ of college graduates based on their college major. Physics and astronomy majors scored the highest with an average IQ of 133, and mathematics majors tailed closely behind with an average of 130. Humanities and Arts majors, on the other hand, averaged an IQ of 120.

I will speak from personal experience to analyze the reason for this discrepancy in test scores. STEM forces the student to think harder and more analytically. Much of the time, solving a physics problem or writing a program will oxymoronically require a systematic, yet creative thought process. The STEM student must be imaginative and able to analyze a given problem from multiple perspectives. Then, once he grounds himself in what he believes is the correct perspective, he must be methodical, utilizing the correct sequence of formulas or algorithms to solve the problem. And the more of this type of thinking one does, the more he or she improves. For example, in an introductory physics class, a student may learn one day that the acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force exerted on it and inversely proportional to its mass (F=ma, Newton’s Second Law). He may then be prompted to calculate the velocity of a three kilogram ball as it reaches the ground from the top of a five meter high wedge with an angle of thirty degrees from horizontal. With the guidance of his teacher, the student will eventually realize that analyzing the ball and wedge system using the traditional y-vertical, x-horizontal axes will result in tedious calculation. Instead, if he changes his perspective and analyzes the system with rotated coordinate axes, such that the x-axis lies parallel to the surface of the wedge, the calculations simplify greatly. He can then apply Newton’s Second Law to find the acceleration of the ball, and then use that acceleration in a kinematics equation to solve for the final velocity. This process embodies the spirit of STEM: learning basic concepts in class, and then harnessing critical thinking and problem solving skills to apply those concepts and elegantly simplify complex systems.

The humanities emphasize this process to a lesser degree. Analytical thinking is important when formulating an argument for, say, a comparative literature essay or for examining causes and effects throughout history. But the caliber of analytical thinking in the humanities falls short of that in STEM; STEM, in general, is more difficult and demands more brain power. Any Dartmouth student could read a SparkNotes article on a renowned piece of literature and immediately gain a relatively deep understanding of its message, symbolism, and overarching themes. But very few Dartmouth students could read an article on, say, recursive algorithms and understand how to implement them. Indeed, STEM tends to be much less intuitive than the humanities, and thus the process of learning STEM is more difficult and better hones one’s problem solving and learning abilities.

STEM also supersedes the humanities from a practical perspective. PayScale.com reports the highest paying bachelor’s degrees, both in early and mid-career. Petroleum Engineering leads the charts with an average starting salary of $96,700, and the next top fourteen majors each fall under the STEM umbrella.

Even the scholarly types who are less concerned with the returns they will receive from their degree should consider that educating oneself in the humanities later on in life, outside of college, is much easier than self-studying STEM. Virtually any petroleum engineer could sit down and read through Pride and Prejudice. If he fails to understand the purpose of the satire, he can discuss with other readers in book groups or online forums, or he can read SparkNotes or Cliff Notes. If he wants to learn Russian history, he can, similarly, pick up a book and start reading. But if an English major seeks to understand the principles of Special Relativity, such as how time passes at a rate determined by one’s velocity, he will likely struggle with the intense mathematical and physical theory necessary to quantify the phenomenon. Learning concepts as difficult as time dilation usually requires the aid of a teacher or professor who can explain the topic in simpler terms than what one reads in a textbook. And, unfortunately, most college graduates don’t happen to be close friends with a physics professor.

STEM intellectually challenges the student more intensely than the humanities, and thus is more conducive to refining one’s problem solving and critical thinking skills. STEM is also more practical from a financial standpoint. In essence, STEM is the future. People who make careers out of STEM work to cure cancer, to slow global warming, to develop the next generation of the iPhone; they shape our tomorrow. So save Pride and Prejudice until after you graduate. Instead, pick up a copy of Purcell’s Electricity and Magnetism and head to your professor’s office hours.