Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Is Cornell Drowning its Engineers in STEM?

By Teodoro TopaPublished December 5, 2019

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Could overemphasis on STEM in the Cornell College of Engineering's curriculum limit the success of its graduates?

At Cornell, students in the College of Engineering are known as some of the most driven and hardworking on campus, and for good reason. But are the many stringent requirements imposed upon students potentially limiting their skill sets? I believe Cornell’s College of Engineering should place a larger emphasis on the humanities.

The College of Engineering’s graduation requirements webpage lists six ‘Liberal Studies’ courses among the required classes. While this may seem like plenty of non-STEM material, AP credit, earned during High School, can void liberal studies requirements. At Cornell, a school filled with high achieving students, it is not out of the ordinary for freshmen to matriculate with enough AP credit to cover two to four classes, if not more. In addition, because humanities courses aren’t given the respect they deserve, the habit of taking easy humanities classes to ‘get them out of the way’ is promulgated. The combination of AP credit transfer and an unwillingness to challenge oneself beyond STEM creates the possibility that a pupil graduates from Cornell’s College of Engineering having taken as few as two unchallenging classes in the humanities fields.

Math and science ought to take precedence at an Engineering College. However, careers in Engineering are not careers devoid of communication, written expression, and critical thinking and analysis. MIT, known for the quality of its STEM education, takes a starkly different approach. At MIT each student is required to take a minimum of 8 HASS (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) classes and to select a concentration to fulfill within HASS. This results in almost 25% of MIT students’ coursework being in non-STEM subjects. The recognition of the role that non-STEM classes play in building the foundation for a rewarding life is a stance Cornell ought to note for two reasons; firstly it better prepares students for their futures. Secondly, and somewhat less obviously, emphasis on humanities precludes the custom of ‘getting writing classes out of the way,’ by treating the skills learned in such classes with the respect they deserve.

Interestingly, in 2014 during his tenure at Cornell, former Cornell President David Skorton published “Why Scientists Should Embrace the Liberal Arts” in Scientific American. In the piece, Skorton logically and articulately defends the crucial role that cultural analysis and awareness play in a scientist’s career. The contrast between Skorton’s words and Cornell’s requirements is stark.

Writing, speaking, and cultural competence form links between people and information across disciplines and lived experiences. Without ethnographic sensibility, how can an engineer attempt to navigate the nuanced challenge of introducing a new technology in a foreign country? Without solid communication skills, how can a scientist justify the importance of their work to their peers or to the public? Writing a stellar research grant proposal takes writing practice, and competently presenting groundbreaking scientific findings to an audience at a conference requires public speaking skills. Without adequate humanities study in school, non-science related blind spots can become obstacles to success.

To fill gaps in the current curriculum, the College of Engineering ought to do two things: eliminate the possibility of using AP credit to place out of Liberal Studies classes, and increase the number of liberal studies credits required. By prohibiting use of AP credit and requiring more classes, the college will ensure that graduating students have a strong foundation in basic humanities at a University level; scholars will not be able to skirt writing requirements as they do today.

Today, only 15% of an Engineering student’s credits must be non-STEM; it is leaving them under-prepared for their professional careers and out of step with counterparts graduating from comparable elite institutions. Cornell Engineering would better serve its student body by diverting attention from coursework directly related to engineering; it would put a wholistic education within reach.