I’m Going into the Arts or Humanities. Why Do I Need to Care About STEM?

I once was helping an art historian get a talk together for some scientists and engineers. She was worried that the audience would not find her presentation interesting. So I asked her what sort of tasks she does. As the curator of art installations that include lighting, she often finds herself working with pieces that have burned out: a projector bulb here, a fluorescent tube there, maybe even entire strings of holiday lights. If the artist has passed away, that can pose problems for her team. Some artists leave instructions on what to do, possibly where to get more lights, or simply to leave it be.

But sometimes there are no instructions and the lighting is no longer manufactured. So the curator has to decide how to re-create the effect: a color texture or a play of shadows. I told her that sounds like a lot of engineering. Although we were speaking by phone, I am pretty sure that I heard her smile.

Are you an arts or humanities student who just can’t wait to stop it already with the STEM classes? How can you possibly create some interest for yourself to make it through to what you want to do?

STEM classes give you exercises in process, discovery, and interpretation. You might have to think a little abstractly to think about how physics helps you develop a process of interpreting knowledge, but that very skill of flexible thought is developed across all of your courses. Exposure to different ways of thinking could help you someday with a breakthrough idea on how to depict a scene, portray a character, or improve society.

Perhaps creative pursuits are where you want to spend your days. Spinning a captivating story or designing a room layout that draws the eye and soothes the soul. Discovery in the laboratory taps into another facet of creativity. Engineers that figure out how to build a factory that can turn out billions of doses of a medicine are constantly creating and designing. The scientists who discovered how the virus or gene works had to think creatively when interpreting the results. The doctors who were frustrated by too many suffering patients saw trends that helped to direct the scientists to discover the cure for the engineers to scale.

Discovery and creativity are about finding and producing patterns. So if STEM professionals develop these skills in STEM classes, perhaps you could use those as well, if only as exposure and inspiration. One of my favorite children’s authors and illustrator was Beatrix Potter who was an exceptional field botanist. Her skill at drawing plants and observing nature led her to write a series of books that are still read over 100 years after they were written. Yes, it would have been better for her scientific contributions to be recognized in her time, but knowing her full story can help us build a society where opportunity is provided for all.

Perhaps it’s the humanities that really interest you. You want to change the world by understanding mistakes that were made in the past and building coalitions to realize a more inclusive now and future. Maybe you want to study law to help clients get fair treatment. Or you are one of our future leaders who will keep growing our potentials.

Changing the world requires working with many different types of people. Picking apart and building up solutions to the trickiest problems means experts from all fields will be involved at some point. So while you’re not necessarily taking physics class to learn how to build a laser, knowing how it could be built helps you understand how scientists and engineers think. Just as STEM classes can be a source of knowing, they can also be a source of appreciation.

But maybe you want to be an influencer who helps people decide what they need. Great! How do you stay in demand? Understanding audience psychology certainly helps. Also perhaps knowing how to exploit algorithms, or at least build a team that can amp your exposure. So listen in during your STEM classes and you just might pick up on some insight that delivers massive dividends.

To end where I began, consider an example from the history of art. Before industry provided the tools of art, the artists often had to be engineers. In the case of painting, it’s true that many pigments came from crushed rocks or living things. Yet over the years, artists learned to synthesize their own paints so that they could have more stable colors. Thus chemistry developed in lockstep with painting — indeed those ancient pictures from Egypt and China were produced in the first civilizations to include alchemists.

Today, STEAM days — Arts and STEM — are growing in popularity. But when I look backwards, sideways, and forward, I see that SHTEAM is everywhere, including the Humanities. A polyglot speaks in “many tongues,” while a polymath heeds “many learnings.” You do not need to be proficient in all the fields, but those who learn broadly excel especially.