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Just Another Liberal Arts Misunderstanding: Pursuing STEM in Liberal Arts Colleges

Why Liberal Arts Colleges should be worth considering for future scientists--and why myths are meant to be busted.

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Photo of Oberlin College. Image from Flickr Commons

Let’s take a look at the following statements:

“Why would you go to a liberal arts college to study science? Aren’t they like the complete opposites of each other?”

“When would a chemist need to know characteristics of medieval English literature?”

“Good luck getting anything out of Cal Poly–” 

“Pomona.”

“Errr–right.

You get the picture.

Whether these criticisms are from family, friends, or teachers, pursuing a STEM degree in a liberal arts college is usually seen as an illogical choice. Due to the prevailing use of technology and social media, some attribute this to how popular media portrays both parties as diametrically opposed (1). Others cite the declining value of liberal education–the credo of liberal arts colleges–in a society that pushes for specialization in the labor force, particularly for STEM careers. This mindset has not eluded politics as well, shown in how Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, proposed “[spending] our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees” in place of liberal arts (3). As a result, our society has perpetuated a myth that pushes STEM hopefuls to big research-focused universities and to overlook liberal arts colleges as capable peer institutions in preparing future scientists.

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Image from Flickr Commons

Perhaps a reason as to why these misconceptions persist lies in the lack of knowledge about liberal arts colleges. Our initial impression of one might resemble a slightly modern version of Raphael’s School of Athens, when in fact they are simply institutions that primarily specialize in undergraduate education. Unlike students from larger research universities, students in liberal arts colleges benefit from the small size and availability of professors, allowing for more opportunities to develop as an individual. The liberal arts curriculum emphasizes the exploration of a broad range of subjects that are not limited to the humanities, such as literature, languages, math, and science. The intent is to produce well-rounded individuals. This can be frowned upon in a society that favors a career-oriented education, something often absent within the liberal arts credo. But liberal arts colleges give much more than just winning trivia games at parties to their students. They not only stress the development of fundamental skills like critical thinking and communication skills, but they teach their students to recognize their work within the greater context of the world they live in. This is especially beneficial for future scientists. According to Thomas Cech, the skills gained from non-science fields are just as valuable in honing a scientist’s ability to perceive and interpret the natural world (2).

And the result?

Well–let’s take a look at the last statement again and respond to it:

“Good luck getting anything out of Cal Poly–”

“Pomona.”

“Errr–right.

Even though one might sigh in exasperation for the unconsciously blatant disregard for their college, liberal arts colleges like Pomona have consistently shown that they can adequately prepare their scientists for their post-graduate plans. According to an analysis by Hart Research Associates on employer priorities in new hires, 74% of employers would recommend a liberal arts education as the “best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy” (4). Furthermore, leadership in the US science community has a disproportionate representation of liberal arts college undergraduates. About 19% elected from the National Academy of Sciences in a two-year period received undergraduate degrees from liberal arts colleges, showing that liberal arts graduates not only obtain Ph.D.’s but also excel in their field of research at twice the rate of general bachelor’s degree recipients (2). These accomplishments are most likely an attribute to the kind of education and environment that liberal arts colleges nurture.

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Data from Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education? (3)

Additionally, liberal arts college graduates have also shown to outperform research universities in producing Ph.D. recipients in science and engineering. The tabular data shown above shows that liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore, Reed, and Carleton are just as capable of producing established scientists and engineers as top research universities (2). This trend has continued ten years later as the US Department of Education found that almost one-third of all students earning doctorates in the natural sciences were graduates of liberal arts or master’s institutions (5). Current research also suggests that liberal arts colleges remain a forefront in STEM research and development of future scientists, but negative perceptions of their influence could undermine these institutions for years to come.

In order to prevent that, breaking common misconceptions is key. While liberal arts colleges do offer great benefits to those who take advantage of their resources, they also tend to be disconnected from the general public. When they are known, they’re usually recognized as havens for the rich, intellectual elite. The key to breaking this stereotype would be encouraging diversity, not only in race but in socioeconomic classes.

The key to accomplishing this would be for all aspiring scientists like yourself, regardless of race and socioeconomic class, to look for communities where you can truly develop as a person and as a scholar. And that community might very well be a liberal arts college. You might get more blank stares and questions than immediate congratulations–but for others and even you, it could be the best choice you’ve ever made. All you have to do is take a chance.


References:

  1. Caspersen, Michael E, and Stephen H Edwards. “Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education – SIGCSE ’17.” ACM Digital Library, 2017, doi:10.1145/3017680. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3022357
  2. Cech, Thomas R. “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?” Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges, vol. 128, 1999, pp. 196–216., www.hhmi.org/sites/default/files/Programs/cech_article.pdf.
  3. Christ, Carol T. “Myth: A Liberal Arts Education Is Becoming Irrelevant.” Myth: A Liberal Arts Education Is Becoming Irrelevant, American Council on Education, 2012, www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/Myth-A-Liberal-Arts-Education-Is-Becoming-Irrelevant.aspx.
  4. Education, Liberal. “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” Association of American Colleges & Universities, Hart Research Associates, 31 Oct. 2014, www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/it-takes-more-major-employer-priorities-college-learning-and.
  5. Keeley, Jim. “Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities: Incubators for Scientists.” HHMI.org, HHMI, 28 Feb. 2007, www.hhmi.org/news/liberal-arts-colleges-and-universities-incubators-scientists.

 

2 comments on “Just Another Liberal Arts Misunderstanding: Pursuing STEM in Liberal Arts Colleges

  1. Merrina Lan

    I totally get you! When my parents tell others that I’m going to a LAC, they thought that I’m only going to study social sciences and arts, not STEM. Someone at my school even thought that LACs are community colleges. It is definitely necessary for us to inform others what LACs are!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: STEM College Spotlight Series: Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 1) – The Student Scientist

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