We need a new type of STEM role model

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/06/29/we-need-a-new-type-of-stem-rol.html

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Steve Jobs? Does the M stand for marketing now?


I’m all for this sort of thing, but what we really need are STEM funding and STEM jobs. This sort of call for inclusiveness and better role models sounds very noble, but at least in my field (basic science sorta stuff in biology) it’s gotten so bad that colleagues of mine are actively talking young people out of the field; they feel that it’s irresponsible to continue training people at great expense for career prospects that fall somewhere between “rock star” and “unicorn herder”.


“we need hardworking, introverted role models who demonstrate what most STEM professionals are actually like.”

So like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory? Only less funny.

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Think globally, act locally. Find someone to mentor and mentor him or her. Repeat. Meta-mentor some of them, encouraging them to mentor as well. Pay it forward. I’m incredibly proud of all of the people I’ve mentored, but I’m sad that only 25% were women until now.



My first thought:

(Alas, too big for oneboxing.)


I’m all for encouraging STEM but let’s not forget that there are a whole lot of other disciplines that are equally important - arts, literature, humanities, history…these are not “lower” fields of study and should not be relegated to the back burner because they are seen as having less value in the current job market.

A true role model is someone who incorporates all aspects of human endeavor and celebrates knowledge regardless of subject.


True, it is great to KNOW these things, but to actually seek productive jobs in them is pretty limited.

I have several friends with History degrees and only one of them is lucky to be doing anything with history (and his wife is a doctor, so he isn’t starving on it.)


This is the real issue - education should not be pursued solely as a means to a job.

Every career benefits from a well rounded education and demoting the importance of certain fields of study because they don’t seem directly relevant only diminishes society further. The current economy may be trending towards STEM but who knows what the future holds? Imagine a flood of STEM-only focused graduates streaming out of our schools only to find intense competition against thousands of other equally educated and technically qualified candidates competing for the same jobs. How will they differentiate themselves when everyone is basically the same type of technically trained drone?

This type of thing is already happening in other parts of the world such as certain area of India where schools are matriculating tens of thousands of computer programmers every year into a local job market that just doesn’t have the industry to hire them all. Granted, many find great employment opportunities overseas but this is not a sustainable model for the global economy and not something we (in the US at least) should emulate. And to grossly generalize, most of the Indian programmers I have worked with over the years, while highly skilled technically, tend to lack vision and context that is typically gained thru humanities.

As a hiring manager myself, I look for well-rounded individuals who can contribute more than just technical skill and can think broadly and creatively about problems. The best candidates I’ve found usually have an undergraduate degree in the arts and have developed their technical skills independently from formal education programs. These types of people tend to have better ideas and can find new associations that others miss because they bring a different context and set of experiences to their job.


Rhis. Jobs, and proper ones, too. Not fucking project positions, and not three pay grade levels below my qualifications. I am still fuming about job offers I read last week by a German federal institution which did exactly that.


That’s true. But at the same time, with a lot of those things, you can self educate your self, take it as electives, or even (damn it the word escapes me, where you go to a class but not for credit).

Unfortunately, education costs both time and money, and unless one doesn’t have to worry about money, it behooves one to invest in something that will pay off down the road. A certain small percentage will find jobs in those fields, and others will later teach in them, like my uncle who has a doctorate in music theory.

I constantly seek out learning. I would rather watch 10 min videos on interesting topics and learn something over cat videos. I think I am in the vast minority. Smarter people I think seek out more knowledge, but I honestly think the average person doesn’t care. They might seek out knowledge of an interest or hobby, but have little interest in just learning more.

That can happen with any industries. Lawyers are having a hard time at it. The supply and demand of various fields will ebb and flow.

I completely agree a more rounded person on average will make a better overall investment.

When I was lad, I wouldn’t have been awed by Jobs. I can imagine a nerdy-looking dude saying, “Engineering pays the bills, so I can D&D all weekend!” That would have caught my attention.


Yeah, exactly. I have multiple friends with literally thousands of citations to their names who have recently left science entirely. They wanted to stay in, but they had just couldn’t keep going from contract to contract, often bouncing around to the other side of the world to do so with their families in tow. I’m very fortunate in that I just got my first tenure track job, but it’s the fourth country I’ve lived in in an eight year period. And I got that job with a CV that would have been sufficient to get me tenure a decade ago. Shit is bleak out there.


And why do you think this is? Largely because intellectual pursuits are no longer valued, because it’s all too often troublesome. Public colleges and universities are being turned into trade schools, students are being treated like customers as opposed to intellectual individuals, and the ability to go to school is slowly being limited to the people who can afford it anyway, as the costs of higher education goes up.

And yet, if we don’t have a firm grasp of all the things that a quality education can provide us, then we’re more likely to give our economy and politics over to liars and charlatans, because we’ll no longer see them coming.

It’s not the same thing, really, though I don’t think one is more valuable than the other. Reading a book for pleasure and to learn something isn’t the same as hearing someone who has spent their time in the archives lecturing and leading a discussion on an aspect of history or literature that might not be so obvious. There is something to the idea of coming together as a class to discuss a reading, because you can get insights from the other readers. Even the prof will learn something in a good seminar like that. Knowledge creation and consumption is never a solitary activity. It’s always about society, more than it is about individual enrichment. YOU being a more well-rounded and educated person, a more empathetic person, is a plus for your family, your community, your country, and your world. This is why we have as a society (thus far, anyway) decided that a well rounded public education (up to a BA) isn’t just about job training, but about broadening our horizons of understanding past our own little niches of knowledge.


Thank you! Said the person who went to graduate school to study poetry. It’s always good for a laugh when I tell this to the engineers who I work with.

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I can’t tell if you agree or disagree with me based on your gif.

I am not saying there are NO jobs out there, but I know people with Anthropology degrees, history degrees, English degrees, and music degrees. Two of them currently works in a field directly related to their degree. Most of them are doing quite well for themselves in other pursuits. Several of them are business types, about half of them are in some sort of programming field, my sister works at a bank and has worked up to manager.

Ironically, I do know one person doing paleontology work with no degree, he’s just really fucking smart and was able to go from hobbyist to a researcher linked to a school.

Hey, I am in a similar boat. I’d love to have been a fine artist. I do production work getting shit ready for print. I have a BFA, which I wouldn’t have even needed if I had real talent. Or at least I’d be using it to its fullest.

Why? Partly based on what you said. Partly because someone can’t make a lot of money selling history. Research and increasing our knowledge relies on someone or something to fund it. STEM gets that money because we can get something back from it in the form of new tech, new materials, new algorithms, Tang, things like that.

With the arts you can at least market and sell the works and talent. People pay to see dancers and singers, and pay for artist prints. And people need marketing materials made and cereal boxes designed. But we still mint way more BFAs than will be put to use.

What do we get piecing together a dinosaur or retracing the route of Napoleon? Nothing nearly as tangible. Sure you can sell some books if your topic is popular enough, or make a living working for a museum or in education, but there are only so many of those jobs to go around.

Again, it isn’t like I am condoning this, this is just how the world is. How it always has been. BA degrees like English and History are still useful, and millions of people used their well rounded education to go on to bigger and better things. But just like our discussion about automation in the future, jobs are getting more and more specialized.

When my dad was in his 20s, it was fairly easy to find a good job based on being reasonably educated (the man has a Forestry degree. FORESTRY!) Today they want you to be focused on the task they need you for (computer science, programming, business, etc) with 5 years experience out of school. We probably have a surplus of well rounded people in some respects, as we have more college educated people now than in any other time in history. The pragmatic approach (following the head, not the heart) on what sort of education you get will probably be better for you in the long run. I say this as someone who followed their heart instead of their head and now I am left wondering if I would have made a better choice going into a STEM field.

Sure, you’re right. Of course a knowledgeable professor who is a good teacher who you can ask questions to and bounce off ideas will be a lot better than reading a book (though I have had those mass lecture classes that I honestly think wasted my time more than just reading a book.) But if the class is one that can allow some discussion and exchange of idea, of course it will eclipse book learning in most respects. Still, I can’t go back to school now, so if I want to learn about something I can watch a documentary or read a book or articles. I am not saying that is the best education or even equal to one found in a good college, just that it is way better than watching sitcoms your whole life.

I truly agree with your overall sentiment. Just for the reasons listed above, it isn’t practical for many people to make it a living. Should they take these things as electives and learn about them? Yes! SHOULD we invest more in arts and humanities and history and literature? Absolutely.

Side note - I really need to get my “x” key fixed.

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The institutional kind yes, but the “joy of learning” or at least the desire to educate oneself seems to be often formed at the family level quite early in life. One of the benefits of institutional education is simply “learning to learn”.

Which happens above and beyond the institution.

I’m very fortunate to be in that same kind of position to be able to seek out knowledge in fields I wasnt “educated” on before. Also fortunate that both parents were non-glamourous scientists who taught me how to learn.

Now that I’m without job, I have lots of time to pursue new topics!

I disagree. What’s “productive”? How is education, whether it’s teaching young kids or adults ever not productive? Why is “tangiability” the concept that equates with people being able to make a living? why is profitability the key to being productive? Why aren’t we all just assumed to be worthwhile human beings, who deserve the basics of life?

Isn’t that part of the problem? That we equate value to “selling” something?

Isn’t that why god make taxes in a capitalist economy? That we can fund those things which aren’t as easily made profitable?

Knowledge isn’t tangible?

Quite frankly, we shouldn’t have to “make a living” I think. A living should be what we’re making, because what that really means is that we’re producing value for someone richer than us.

But it doesn’t matter, because I decided to try and make a “living” informing people about the past?

I hope you get a new keyboard, then.


STEM teaches about the world and sometimes job specific skills. Liberal Arts teach you how to think. STEM leans towards certainty, Liberal Arts teaxhes how to deal with ambiguity. I firmly believe the denigration of Liberal Arts (ahh!!! It’s got liberal in the name. And art. Artists are just flaky weirdos) is part of why we’re in the situation we are now. People have never learned to think critically about what they see, hear and read and they don’t know how to deal with not having answers. So they grasp for that thing or that person who promises to remove the uncertainty. Sure, it’s bad, but at least it’s certainly bad.

It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest minds in STEM also had a solid grounding in the Liberal Arts. But the more we strip that away, the more we head to an actual dark age, but nobody will be trained to think well enough to get us out of it.


I had a teacher who said the key point of education was not to ready workers for employment, but to ready citizens for participation in a democracy. At the time, even that seemed reductive to me. But it’s certainly not hard to see the connection between the idea that education is mainly learning to make money, and a society that becomes increasingly incapable of anything except enriching the rich.