Sunday, April 16, 2023

Time to embrace STEM AND Non-STEM (Humanities) disciplines?

credit: nisaul khoiriyal

A for Apple, B for Bing, C for Chrome, and D for Drive.
credit: masterSergeant

Time to revise the English primer?

The world we live in has been shrinking down over the years, and the process has gained more mileage lately. With voice assistants controlling home appliances as well as AIs that help you write the best college essay in a few seconds, the human race has come a long way. All thanks to the advancements in STEM research and development over the last few decades.

With technology becoming omnipresent, there appears to be a sudden demand from parents to provide STEM exposure to their children right from their preschool years. There has been a significant rise in the number of playschools and activity centers across India that offer STEM-oriented coaching for children as young as 25-30 months. Besides, major EdTech platforms have been peddling tuition packages for Engineering and Medical aspirants alike. So, what exactly is going on? How did STEM become one of the most popular career choices since the 90s?

Wait. The 90s?

Yes. To be precise, 1991 was a major milestone in the history of Indian Politics and Economy. It opened the floodgates of Globalization (with the Liberalization policy) to welcome international brands to compete in the Indian market. At the same time, it also witnessed several tides of changes, as far as career options were concerned. As Michael Cournoyer writes,

“Employment in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations has grown 79% since 1990, from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, outpacing overall U.S. job growth...These include computer, math, engineering and architecture occupations, physical scientists, life scientists and health-related occupations such as health care practitioners and technicians, but not health care support workers such as nursing aides and medical assistants.” (Cournoyer, 2018)

The employment situation in India was quite similar to the US. As India stepped up as a promising young market in the spheres of IT, Medicine and Engineering Sciences, the job opportunities in STEM related fields grew exponentially. With affordable education and greater scope to pursue professional science degrees such as MBBS and BTech the STEM jobs promised decent salary packages while also

offering the youth a different option to consider - an arena hitherto unexplored by their previous generations, distinct from government employment, one where they could make a mark of their own.

Since the 90’s, the surge of STEM-related jobs are still going strong, even after three decades. As most of the Gen X shifted their focus towards STEM, it was expected of the next generations (Millennials, Gen Z, Gen Alpha..) to consider the same path.

Among many, the three major factors which positioned the STEM careers as the 1st choice for parents and children are: 

Economy: Career choice are often influenced by the dynamics of supply of jobs and earning potential. For a country that has newly joined the league of liberalized economies, the Indian job market promises more opportunities in the STEM sector, making it the preferred career choice among parents and most students.

Socio-cultural: Social learning may have played it’s role as Gen X partook in the bandwagon to opt for STEM jobs, the succeeding generations were eventually brought up with the same expectation in mind. The transgenerational passage of social learnings  to pursue STEM careers from parent to child became a widespread phenomenon. 

Politics: The advancement of a nation is measured on certain parameters, one of which includes innovations in STEM-based endeavors. Be it medical research, nuclear capability, sending a rocket into space, governments across the world provide more support for STEM, as part of their nation building policies.

So in today’s 21st century, does Humanities (non-STEM disciplines) deserve a chance for resurrection?

credit: Poster for college of humanities at the university of Utah (2015)

Remember the famous sci-fi Hollywood movies - The Terminator (1984), Jurassic Park (1993), Her (2013), Ex Machina (2014) and M3GAN (2022). While their respective plots are vastly different, there exists a single thread of commonality that binds these four films - they all focus on the harrowing nature of Science and Technology in the absence of checks and balances. This Jurassic Park meme makes a fantastic point on the ominous side of scientific development in isolation.

There is a growing recognition that 21st century ecological, social, economic, energy, health, wellbeing and geopolitical problems are of global, complex and nonlinear nature. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), Yuval Noah Harari lists out topics of grave importance such as: Technological challenge to human beings concepts of work, liberty, equality, Political challenge to community, nationalism, religion and immigration, Dangers from terrorism/war and Blurring of truth with misinformation aided by Deep Tech. Solving such complex global problems calls for joint multi-disciplinary efforts and non-linear - critical thinking as the preferred problem-solving approach, as non one particular discipline holds the key to unlock the solutions.

Hence STEM and Non-STEM (Humanities) disciplines has to co-exist together to give humanity a fighting chance to successfully navigate it’s many unknown and thrive into the future.  

credit: Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)

A recent news of Pause Giant AI Experiments: An Open Letter published on 22nd March 2023 by 'Future of Life Institute', calling on all AI Labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.

"Contemporary AI systems are now becoming human-competitive at general tasks, and we must ask ourselves: Should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth? Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilization? Such decisions must not be delegated to unelected tech leaders. Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable. This confidence must be well justified and increase with the magnitude of a system's potential effects.” (“Pause Giant AI Experiments: An Open Letter”)

Elon Musk (founder of SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink, OpenAI), Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), Gary Marcus (Cognitive Scientist) and engineers from Amazon, DeepMind, Google, Meta and Microsoft are signatories to this open letter. This speaks volumes of the perils of pursuing only STEM, without acknowledging the fact, human society is a cloth which is woven by the threads of both non-STEM and STEM disciplines.

These cookie crumbs, therefore, can be wiped away with only one option - maintaining a system of checks and balances by co-existence of STEM and Non-STEM (Humanities) disciplines. It is important to involve economists, psychologists, political theorists, philosophical thinkers, history scholars and several other experts from disciplines of Social Sciences and Humanities to add more value in the policy-making process of the scientific and technological innovations that are at work or in progress. 

The need to have a non-STEM perspective (multiple, in this case) is of absolute necessity, as it provides with innumerable perspectives that would go unseen or never even considered under circumstances exclusive to STEM.

In conclusion

credit: Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)

The Nature vs Nurture debate serves as a relevant metaphor, in the context of STEM vs Non-STEM.

How much a person’s characteristics are formed by either “nature” (genetics) or “nurture” (environment/upbringing/life experience)?

Over-time this long-standing debate of Nature vs Nurture, is being put to rest with “Epigenetics” an emerging area of scientific research that shows how Nurture (environmental influences) affects the expression of their Nature (genes). The new emerging paradigm is “Nature and Nurture”.

Picking cue from this, isn’t it also time for us to move on from STEM vs Non-STEM to ‘STEM and Non-STEM (Humanities)’, for finding answers to the chaotic and complex questions and solve the problems which humanity faces in the 21st century?

I have dropped ‘vs’ and embraced ‘and’.

What About You?


Blog Collaborator:

Apurba Ganguly (she/her) is an English Literature student, pursuing B.Ed. She has been eager to understand the intricacies of Memory Studies and Visual Narratives.

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