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STEM isn't everything

Coming from a decidedly non-rigorous high school, the barrier to entry for technical knowledge as a Pratt freshman last year seemed insurmountable. I was stuck in intro level courses, while my friends were sailing ahead with their AP credit placements; I was disheartened that college had barely begun and already I was starting from behind. I initially applied to engineering programs because I wanted to push myself academically, but staying in Pratt just seemed brutal.

As a woman in STEM, the balance between wishing the field had more females and the feeling of superiority associated with being one of the select few made it difficult to separate my feelings about my academics from those surrounding my image. I didn’t want to stay, but I also didn’t want to be seen as a quitter or someone who wasn't smart enough to be an engineer. Duke students like to compete over who has the least sleep, the busiest schedule and the hardest assignments; this battle of woes was amplified in Pratt, and I felt like a fake engineering student because I went to bed by midnight and highly valued hobbies and socializing. For me, heterogeneity in tasks to work on is necessary, and the homogeneity of Pratt courses would have made it very difficult to avoid burnout. 

Beyond the twenty-eight math, science, engineering and major specific courses, Pratt students need to take only five social sciences and humanities classes to graduate, plus their freshman Writing 101. When I realized these non-STEM classes were the ones I most looked forward to—and had the least to do with my supposed engineering trajectory—I saw no reason for me to suffer unnecessarily with no clear benefit. I didn’t need to feel like I was constantly three steps behind my classmates. I didn’t need to dread the classes I was going to take. I didn’t need to sacrifice my wellbeing for the sake of an image that didn’t even fit me.

In high school, I gravitated towards my STEM classes because they gave me a little taste of the intellectual challenge I so lacked. I saw English and History courses as something I had to get though, an unfortunate requisite of pre-collegiate education. However—through leaving home, living through the events of the past few years and getting older—as I've gained greater context with which to understand the importance of the humanities, I have come to appreciate and value what they add to my educational experience.

The obsession with cultivating a resume full of technical skills and experiences completely eschews the point of attending a liberal arts college and the unique situation it provides us in terms of personal growth beyond the quantifiable. Yes, “problem solving” is fun, but it isn’t something that is unique to technical roles, nor should it be the only thing we learn how to do here. 

Even from an exclusively quantitative view of the value of various courses, there are qualities of the humanities that are not present in a STEM classroom. Being one of a dozen students in a class instead of one in two hundred has clear benefits in regards to engagement with the content and with the professor. Taking smaller or discussion based classes forces students to think on their feet, to synthesize and communicate opinions clearly—skills that are applicable to nearly any technical or otherwise professional role—or, at the very least, are helpful when interviewing.

College is special in that it allows us to learn in a contained environment, with low risks associated with making mistakes; if all we’re doing is solving problem sets, we may as well have just learned from YouTube tutorials instead. After a solid foundation of technical concepts, it is relatively simple to learn new ones. But it's nearly impossible to improve soft skills without being put in situations that force yourself to do so.

While I do find my courses in Computer Science and related fields to be quite intellectually satisfying, it is most always in terms of individual work—understanding a particularly difficult concept, passing all the tests of a coding assignment, getting in a state of flow when programming. A lot of the joy in the humanities stems from group discourse incomparable to that of collaboration in STEM.  For me, summing a series together just doesn’t compare to debating the merit of writing as a technology. We shouldn't only learn declarative knowledge and how to think about concepts, but also how to think for ourselves—something that, paradoxically, must be learned but cannot be taught.

Maybe engineering simply wasn’t for me; I know a lot of people who, ostensibly at least, enjoy the STEM-heavy curriculum and relish the hardcore reputation and lifestyle asssociated with the discipline. But while I may complain about the foreign language requirement, I am happy in Trinity knowing that I am developing more than only my “problem solving abilities,”and I firmly believe that we shouldn’t sacrifice the tradition of Duke’s liberal arts education just to make college yet another stepping stone on the pathway to a lucrative career.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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