When your child’s goal is to succeed in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers in the future, they might not pay a lot of attention to developing skills they associate with humanities. Like English Language skills.
But who can blame them? If you’re trying to do well in Calculus BC, Computer Science, Human A&P, and remembering to eat and sleep, your mandatory English class seems to take a back seat. If you’re not throwing it out of the moving car altogether, that is. Unfortunately, this viewpoint can be detrimental to your child’s career. Without excelling in English writing, reading, and composition, one may not achieve full success in STEM careers.
If you’re scoffing with disbelief right now, you are one of many parents who hold a common misconception. No worries! As always, we’re here with the evidence to back up our claims. First, let’s talk about the misapprehensions around STEM and English.
STEM vs. Humanities: Boxing Students Up
Growing up (and currently living) in our society, we know how easily those around will place us into different categories. In high school, if you were on an athletics team, people did not expect you to excel in academics. Let’s not get started about the “Asians are nerds” stereotype. We know in practice that hard and fast rules rarely apply to the majority of the population. Usually, they only fit a powerful minority’s needs.
Unsurprisingly, school systems tend to impose the same limitations on students, perhaps even more so. Here are some common misconceptions our education system perpetuates. Firstly, students who love visual and performing arts are too creative to expend energy on traditional academics. Secondly, students of literature and history do not have the technical mind to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Finally, STEM students cannot weave beautiful narratives or understand human emotion or mythology.
Have you heard of self-fulfilling prophecies?
Prominent sociologist, Robert Merton, coined the term back in 1968. In his words, a self-fulfilling prophecy is “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true,” (Merton 477).
So, what’s the false definition in this case? Well, have you never met a dancer who also loves economics? Or a data science and machine learning enthusiast who writes blogs for fun? If not, hi! Nice to meet you, author speaking!
Self-inserts aside, we all already know that humans are complex beings with a variety of interests and capacities to excel in diverse areas. When we allow students to be placed into boxes or streams of academics, while it might give them focus, it limits their full potential. Moreover, we forget how interdependent success in one area is with the other.
Specifically, with STEM students, success in STEM and achievement in English is substantially interdependent. There are two main reasons:
- Working in STEM requires a surprising amount of reading and writing.
- Communication skills are a must in STEM.
English as an Essential in STEM
When you look back on your English classes, it may feel like a whirlwind of reading books and poems and guessing why big, blue eyes rimmed with yellow glasses are so important. If you get that reference, here’s a virtual reward: ???. Pretty sweet deal, huh?
Okay, it might feel like that previous paragraph is disproving the point. After all, if the only good thing you got from paying attention in your eleventh grade English class was virtual dessert, that’s kind of pathetic.
Believe it or not, those analytic essays you wrote, those persuasive arguments you crafted, those come-to-life narratives you wove are ALL critical in the field of STEM.
According to Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, the authors of Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, the acronym STEM should be modified to STREAM to include reading/writing and art. Here are the authors describing what an articulate writer does:
To be a lucid writer, one must observe acutely; abstract out the key information; recognize and create patterns; use analogies and metaphors to model in words some reality that takes place in another dimension; translate sensations, feelings, and hunches into clearly communicable forms; and combine all this sensual information into words that create not only understanding but also delight, remorse, anger, desire, or any other human emotion that will drive understanding into action.
Think about it: what we’ve just described is what a scientist or mathematician does too.
That’s the point, too. English writing and composition is essential in mastering the creative process.
It’s the easiest way to master the skills needed to analyze and find patterns to draw conclusions from datasets or to utilize multiple mathematical theories to derive the solution to a complex equation. In other words, good writing mirrors the scientific method. To be clear, writers share the same essential skills as scientists. Both must master inquiry, abstraction, modeling, synthesis, analysis, problem-solving, and presenting the results.
Even if we ignore that our English classes help us build these critical skillsets, we must look at what working in STEM involves.
— Luella Allen-Waller (@symbioecology) February 11, 2019
She’s right! A lot of working in STEM involves reading and writing technical reports or research papers.
According to German-Jewish physicist and mathematician, Max Born, writing technical reports is a lot like weaving a story:
To present a scientific subject in an attractive and stimulating manner is an artistic task, similar to that of a novelist or even a dramatic writer. The same holds for writing textbooks.
Why is that? When STEM students begin their post-secondary education, they’ll find that their core STEM classes will require them to learn how to write these technical reports. Their professors will also tell them to write it like a story. The problem for students will be to find their story.
If your child already has a stronghold in English, answering questions like the ones below won’t be a problem:
- What questions is the report is going to answer?
- How do the conclusions of this work compare to prior work?
- What evidence do you have that backs up these conclusions?
Most students, however, will. Moreover, while they might have initial answers to these questions, those answers will change as they get further into the process of writing the report. They’ll need to have mastered the art of outlining essays beforehand to save time and effort. As you already know, we learn these skills in our English class. Thus, it is evident that English is an essential tool for achieving in STEM.
Writing and Communication Skills are Interrelated
Most of you already know this by now. Students who write well are also confident in their ability to communicate their ideas. They also communicate their ideas effectively. But is communication really important for students of STEM?
Yes. It is equally important to their actual skills and expertise in STEM, if not more. Let’s go back to our previous argument. We established that English writing and composition is necessary to master the creative process.
Here’s some more elaboration on that thought. We prefer the way the Root-Bersteins explain it:
Whether one is writing fiction or nonfiction, creative nonfiction or poetry, the process of taking inchoate facts, trends, feelings, impressions, images, and emotions and translating them into words requires mastery of all the tools for thinking required to perform any other creative activity. Moreover, since words are our primary means of communicating, anyone who has not mastered their creative use is simply underprepared for any discipline, including STEM subjects.
Without being able to write well, STEM students simply would not be able to convey their thoughts, findings, and recommendations in a manner that would convince others to back them up. To be concise, your ideas are only worth as much as how well others understand it. If you cannot explain your ideas accurately and clearly, they will be worthless.
Still not convinced? Take these actual STEM professionals’ takes about the importance of writing and communicating well in their fields.
- Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, in 2011:
The language of science is a language under stress. Words are being made to describe things that seem indescribable in words—equations, chemical structures, and so forth. Words do not, cannot, mean all that they stand for, yet they are all we have to describe experience. By being a natural language under tension, the language of science is inherently poetic. There is metaphor aplenty in science. Emotions emerge shaped as states of matter and more interestingly, matter acts out what goes on in the soul.
- Stephen Hawkings in his Brief Answers to Big Questions:
Not only is it important to ask questions and find the answers, as a scientist I felt obligated to communicate with the world what we were learning.
- Anne Roe, Psychologist, in The Making of a Scientist (1953):
Nothing in science has any value to society if it is not communicated, and scientists are beginning to learn their social obligations.
- Antoine Lavoisier, the father of Modern Chemistry:
It is impossible to disassociate language from science…To call forth a concept, a word is needed.
There are more still, but STEM professionals spanning centuries all agree. Communication is critical to doing well in this profession.
Seriously, Students of STEM Please Develop Love For English!
By now, it is evident that students who want to have successful careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics should value their English classes. They are the gateway to building essential skills that will be the fuel for the metaphorical car to the halls of STEM fame. If you are a STEM student or if you are a parent of a STEM student who has neglected their English classes, please help them remedy this immediately. Have them take tutoring on writing and comprehension skills.
Are you a student looking to improve your English reading and writing skills? Or a parent looking to help out their child improve their English language skills drastically this year?
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