Defining the problem:

Q: What did the liberal arts major say to the engineering grad?
A: Do you want fries with that?

Q: How can you identify an extroverted engineer?
A: When he talks to you, he looks at your shoes instead of his own.

 

Yes, the world needs more people versed in STEM, but the growing imperative for STEM workers is hardening into dogma that isn’t good for anybody, including companies in the technology industry. As STEM skills are becoming increasingly exalted, non-technical skills are being not only minimized but denigrated. The problem is encapsulated in the tension between the two jokes above.

Both jokes are old, but they’re still being told because there’s an element of truth to them. Too many liberal arts majors do, in fact, end up becoming repositories of knowledge that isn’t widely applicable; the world doesn’t really need that many people with expertise in semiotics or the art of the Sassanid Empire or the literature of Henryk Sienkiewicz. Meanwhile, yes, it is often enough the case that an engineer is introverted.

When that joke about liberal arts majors gets told, what’s typically missed is the true point of a liberal arts education: not necessarily any specific knowledge but the skills that come with the learning. People who graduate with liberal arts degrees ideally should have learned to think critically and to be able to communicate what they’ve thought about. To put a fine point on it, clarity of thought is critical for effective communication (in engineering terms: garbage in, garbage out). They should have learned how to learn. Meanwhile, when that joke about engineers gets told, the issue isn’t personality types; the issue is the lack of communication skills.

The two jokes come from different angles to feed into a certain dogmatism: that the technology industry is valuable and if we want to remain competitive, we need to alter our educational systems so that they focus relentlessly on STEM.

One of the leading rationales for every public education system in existence is to produce an educated workforce. Since at least the 1980s, American industry has complained that U.S. schools aren’t producing enough graduates with technical skills. In the 1990s, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) became the formalized list of desired skills and was inevitably given an acronym. The emphasis on STEM in U.S. education these days is formidable, from the level of local school districts to the federal government and everywhere in between.

STEM overemphasized
The problem is that STEM education is becoming overemphasized at the expense of other skills. The technology industry says that it needs STEM skills, but the technology industry also needs those STEM workers to be able to communicate well. It can be critically important that STEM workers be able to collaborate with each other (which requires communication skills) and to be able to explain what it is they’re doing.

As the director of advanced technology at Rockwell Automation, David A. Vasko is responsible for developing and managing technology. To that end, he’s become versed in how to foster engineering skills, which has led him to examine everything from elementary school instruction to engineering career trajectories. We asked him about the skills that the technology industry is looking for. He started precisely where one would expect, but as he warmed to the subject, he advocated for STEM becoming STEAM — because art is becoming that important to modern technology.

“Everybody should have a strong foundation in STEM skills; I like to see it early in schools,” he said. As an example, he referred to For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a non-profit co-founded by inventor Dean Kamen (the Segway) in 1989 to promote STEM skills in grades K–12. The organization holds annual robotics contests.

vasko

David Vasko (Source: Rockwell Automation)

I love programs like FIRST, where they have teams working together, collaborating, and not just learning the equations but actually applying technology,” Vasko said. “They need to have a strong math and science background. Those are important, but collaborating and communicating, that’s just as important. They really need to communicate what they’re doing, working with peers. Just having the technical skills isn’t enough anymore.”

He explained that to make sure that student participants haven’t done the equivalent of assembling a kit, they are quizzed by mentors and judges. They demonstrate that they fully understand their projects with their responses. The actual robots are less interesting than watching high school kids conversing with seasoned engineers.

And that’s what Rockwell is looking for when it hires, said Vasko. “About 18 months ago, I gave up trying to find experienced people in a lot of positions. I was looking for people with five years of experience in fields that were only three years old. It was foolish. Instead of doing that, I’m hiring for strong foundational skills — really strong communication skills, really strong [collaborative] skills.”

Once in the profession, there is a career ladder with identifiable rungs that take an individual from engineering to engineering management to corporate management, he said.

“The last four steps of the career ladder, those are much more dependent on the communication and collaborative skills than they are on the technical skills. Someone can be the best technologist in the world, but if their impact doesn’t go outside their cube, they’ll have limited impact within their company and their industry. If they’re able to communicate within the company, within the industry, within the international community, that’s a much bigger impact. We’re looking for people who can do that.

“Some people love that collaboration, and they’ll get more technical as they go. Some people will start out more technical and gradually approach the more collaborative skills. Either way, if you want to excel at the highest levels of engineering, you have to do that.”

It is possible that the head of the engineering department might intuitively grasp the value of a new hardware design or a new coding technique, but somewhere along the line, somebody is going to have to explain to people who don’t have engineering degrees — in clear language and in an intelligible manner — what the New Thing is, what it does, and why it’s important.

People lacking engineering degrees are legion, and they have a direct effect on whether the New Thing succeeds or not. In-house, they might be in the finance department or the C-suites or the marketing department or the public relations department (those latter two endeavors being more liberal arts than science and yet still integral to a functional enterprise).

STEM to STEAM

After that, there will be potential customers who will want to learn about the New Thing, peers who might be needed for all kinds of support (at standards meetings, technical conferences, etc.), end customers, investors, analysts, and let’s not forget reporters. There is a common injunction for reporters to stay out of their own stories, but in this case, I am part of this story. My peers and I value as worth their weight in gold engineers who can translate technology into English.

As for the transition from STEM to STEAM? That intersects with another trend in engineering, the trend toward interdisciplinary development projects. And if many of those types of projects are mash-ups of two disciplines that both qualify as STEM, more and more frequently, it will be a mix of one STEM discipline and something that is most assuredly one of the liberal arts.

Shakespeare

Shakespeare

“I had a recent epiphany,” Vasko said. “I went to the local university to look in on an augmented-reality [AR] project, and I found I wasn’t in the engineering department — I was in the art department. They were taking a lot of images and reducing the complexity to simple surfaces so that they can turn them into AR — which is very much like what we do at Rockwell. You may see more of that. The art department just happened to have exceptional technical skills, they were doing things as well as some engineering groups, if not better.”

In the May 29 episode of the “Code Recode” podcast (on Spotify, the conversation included investors Mark Cuban and Steve Case. Both argued for the value of liberal arts in a high-tech context.

Case said, “…one of the areas we need to focus on is the skills for the future, for the jobs of the future. Some of that, coding, is important for people who have the aptitude, but not everybody should be a coder.” What the tech industry is going to need, he said, are creativity, collaboration, and communication skills. “Those things are super-important and are going to be the difference between make or break.”

Cuban responded, “In an AI world, you have to be knowledgeable about something, right?” He observed that an engineering degree is going to continue to be more valuable than a liberal arts degree — but only for the short term. A lot of coding is eventually going to be taken over by artificial intelligence, and then, he said, “You have to have some domain knowledge, because the whole idea of building a neural network is identifying what’s going to feed what, right? What’s the outcome that you want? And knowing what is right and what is wrong and where biases are and being able to test for it.

“…Twenty years from now, if you are a coder, you might be out of a job,” Cuban continued. “Because it’s just math, and so whatever we’re defining the AI to do, someone’s got to know the topic. If you’re doing an AI to emulate Shakespeare, somebody better know Shakespeare.”