STEM and the Humanities: Better Together

With Good Reason

By Allison Quantz

When my With Good Reason colleague Kelley Libby and I visited a fourth-grade class in Louisa, Virginia, we discovered something surprising. If you ask kids to draw a picture of a scientist, they all draw pretty much the same thing: a white man. Unfortunately, those pictures aren’t so far from reality. Data from 2011 indicates women made up only 26 percent of the science and engineering workforce, and while students of color made up 33 percent of the college-age population, they earned just 18 percent of the bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering and 5 percent of the doctorates.*

The With Good Reason team: Lilia Fuquen, Sarah McConnell, Kelley Libby, Andrew Wyndham, Elliot Majerczyk, Allison Quantz Photo by Dan Addison

Episode Guide

  1. Engineering Change: Why STEM Matters
  2. Edna the Engineer: Who Gets to Be a Scientist?
  3. Not Your Mother’s Shop Class
  4. Do the Math
  5. The Art of Science
  6. Those Who Can … Teach
  7. Up to Speed: Remedial Math and Community Colleges
  8. STEM vs. the Humanities?
  9. Nuts and Bolts: Our Brains on STEM
  10. Beyond the Books

“We still have unequal education in the United States,” says educator and VFH Board member Oliver Hill. “And it still breaks down along racial lines.” This is especially true in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—known collectively as STEM. In late 2012, Hill, a professor of psychology at Virginia State University, approached With Good Reason with an idea: use radio to bring the issues of inequality in STEM education to a broad audience. Working with Hill and the National Science Foundation, With Good Reason waded into the national conversation about STEM with a ten-part series called “Engineering Change.”

We spent over a year investigating STEM through conversations with top historians, teachers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs across the nation. We visited classrooms, makers’ labs, and even a local pub for a science talk. In the episode “Do the Math,” host Sarah McConnell speaks with civil rights activist Bob Moses, whose Algebra Project advocates the belief that math literacy is a civil right. “The information age, like it or not, has added quantitative literacy along with reading and writing as a prerequisite for democratic citizenship,” Moses tells McConnell.

We still have unequal education in the United States… And it still breaks down along racial lines. – Oliver Hill

In a later episode, McConnell speaks with engineer Debbie Sterling, who was so frustrated by what she calls the “pink aisle” for girls in toy stores that she gambled her life savings—and won—on the creation of GoldieBlox, a series of books and construction sets designed to teach engineering concepts to girls.

An episode focusing on the importance of great teachers highlights Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He relates how marching with Martin Luther King Jr. as a child gave him the leadership skills to make UMBC one of the nation’s top producers of African American PhDs in science and engineering.

STEM is often positioned in opposition to the humanities, but With Good Reason’s “Engineering Change” series argues that the two actually complement each other. Doctor-poet Daniel Becker explains how studying narrative can make for better doctors. “I listen to patients and they say things that really make me curious,” he says, “or they connect two things that I’ve never connected before.” Engineering professor Mohamed Gad-el-Hak points out that anyone who has tried to assemble an Ikea table knows how important it is for engineers to learn to write.

The information age, like it or not, has added quantitative literacy along with reading and writing as a prerequisite for democratic citizenship. – Bob Moses

Reflecting on the series, McConnell says she was surprised by how rich the topic of STEM education turned out to be. “Each time we felt like we had reached the end, we found another guest, with another story, and a new perspective on why STEM education matters and how critical it is to make sure all students, not just our elite students, have access to excellence in STEM fields.”

We can bet this won’t be the final word on STEM in America, but With Good Reason’s series raises pressing questions about an issue that drives education policy today. All ten episodes of “Engineering Change” will be offered to public radio stations across the nation and are available on With Good Reason’s website, WithGoodReasonRadio.org/change.

*National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources statistics. 2011. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2011. National Academies Press, 2011. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.