Why STEM is not enough

Academic Views / Sunday, April 26th, 2020

Linda Lim, Gunalan Nadarajan and Jessie Yang—Singaporean professors at the University of Michigan—make a case for the arts and humanities in the age of tech and coronavirus.

COVID-19 has caused a marked shift in scientific research around the world away from other problems toward investigating and fighting the virus. This will take much time to yield results.

Intriguingly, Germany’s effort to combat the virus has been the most successful of any large developed country, allowing it to more quickly reopen its economy—success which has been credited to the involvement of humanities scholars. In the federal government’s advisory group, philosophers, historians, theologians, jurists and pedagogical experts outnumbered scientists and medical specialists. The state of North-Rhine Westphalia also had humanists work with business representatives on its lockdown exit strategy. Their task was to “ask difficult questions” relating to ethics, law, human and social behavior, political power and the role of government in balancing the needs of health, the environment and the economy.

This is just one example of the practical importance of humanities expertise in the modern world. With the rapid rise of tech in business, industry and daily life, education in STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics—has become all the rage internationally, Singapore included. Yet in the US, far and away the global leader in both tech and STEM, ever greater attention is being paid to the increased importance of the arts and humanities to technological advance, business, tech employment, and STEM education itself.

We are three Singaporean professors at the University of Michigan, engaged in this phenomenon from different perspectives. Gunalan Nadarajan, Professor and Dean of the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design, served on a high-level committee convened by the U.S.’ prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NSEM) to study and report on The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with the Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Higher Education. Jessie Yang, Assistant Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering and Information Science, researches human-machine interactions in areas such as autonomous vehicles, healthcare and the arts. Linda Lim, Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business, has former MBA students working in Big Tech companies (Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft), tech startups, and traditional industries like automotive, manufacturing and healthcare that are undergoing digital disruption.

Our experiences conform to the observations of many others. In their 2018 book The Future Computed, Microsoft President Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research Harry Shum write:

…skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering, and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.


Assistant Professor Jessie Yang at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, October 2018, with colleagues, students and the robot docent they are designing.  (Photo: Mark Gjukich)

In the future, humans and autonomous agents (machines) will work together as a team, collaborating intelligently to actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths. Humans are good at solving problems that require adaptability, creativity, and social skills; while machines can analyze large amounts of data at a high speed impossible for humans, outperforming humans on some well-defined questions. For this partnership to function optimally, we should understand how each can most effectively augment the other, and redesign the interaction process to support this.

Take automated vehicles, which have huge economic and safety benefits. According to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), vehicle automation ranges from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation). Almost all automated vehicles on the road are at Level 2 (partial automation), where the vehicle can control steering and accelerating/decelerating, but the human driver is responsible for monitoring the environment and retaking control if the automated vehicle reaches its performance limit. At Level 3 (conditional automation), the vehicle will have “environmental detection” capabilities, but still require human override in corner cases. In Level 4 (high automation), the vehicle can perform all driving functions under certain conditions and in certain areas.

For other conditions and areas, humans still need to drive, necessitating novel human-machine interfaces. Can a human driver who has been watching movies or texting friends in a Level 3 automated vehicle move attention to the driving task, comprehend what is happening in the environment, and perform an appropriate maneuver, all within seconds? How do we design better interfaces to help the human driver negotiate takeover transitions? To answer such questions, we need to better understand humans, their cognitive, physical and emotional capabilities.

Economics and business

Novels and other literature help to promote the human understanding that are necessary for sounder business and economic models.  (Picture: Ryan Hickox)

In Cents and Sensibility, Northwestern University professors Gary Saul Morson (humanities) and Morton Schapiro (economics) argue that economic models fail when they lack human understanding, specifically culture, stories and ethical considerations. Their solution is literature, since novels help develop empathy by requiring readers to see the world as their stories’ characters do. 

In Narrative Economics, Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller argues that popular stories which affect individual and collective economic behavior are what move markets. For example, fear of “technological unemployment”–a narrative that robots were taking people’s jobs at an unprecedented rate—created panic which exacerbated the stock market plunge that accompanied the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The World Economic Forum’s study The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution found that top executives identified ten essential skills for business success: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making, service orientation, negotiation skills, and cognitive flexibility. 

Steve Jobs, former CEO of tech company Apple, famously attributed the company’s success in part to the role of the liberal arts and humanities in its business. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Academic commentator Richard Greenwald concluded that these skills are rooted in liberal arts education, explaining that so many Fortune 500 and tech startup CEOs have liberal arts degrees because “the liberal arts alone provides the basis for leadership, lifelong learning, and a meaningful life.”  The late Steve Jobs famously said that “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Emsi, a labor market analytics firm, and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, has found that liberal arts graduates’ employment in STEM fields in the U.S. was growing at a much faster rate than that of computer science and engineering graduates, even as, from 1970 to 2016, humanities majors decreased from 36 to 23 percent, while STEM majors increased from 64 to 77 percent, of all undergraduate degrees. 

STEM companies need employees who can understand and communicate with diverse users and partners, and contribute to the creative and ethical processes of developing technology for the market, considering its social implications.  Most jobs in STEM fields are non-STEM, from sales and marketing, to people and product management, training and support services. According to venture capitalist Scott Hartley, author of The Fuzzy and the Techie, liberal arts graduates form a larger percentage of today’s tech workforce than do technical graduates.  And among humanities graduates in the U.S., the biggest group go on to management positions (15%), followed by office and administrative positions (14%), sales (13%), education (12%), business and finance (10%).

Rapid technological change in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) ensures that most people will change jobs and occupations, perhaps frequently, during their careers, with constant reskilling required.  Broad disciplinary preparation, flexibility and adaptability, critical and imaginative thinking, and social skills, will facilitate this process.  As “hard” skills become obsolete or more readily automated, more of the jobs that remain will require durable “soft” skills that relate to our diverse and dynamic humanity. 

A Linked-In survey in 2018 found that 57 percent of leaders said that soft skills like leadership, communication and collaboration were more important than hard skills. An earlier British Council study comparing the educational backgrounds of 1,700 corporate, non-profit and government leaders from 30 countries found that 55 percent had either a social sciences or humanities bachelor’s degree.   This was more common among younger leaders (aged under 45), with those over 45 more likely to have studied STEM.


The 2018 NSEM report (discussed above) concluded that integrating arts and humanities with STEMM education (the second M standing for Medicine) is strongly associated with improved written and oral communications skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking and deeper learning, strong content mastery, general engagement and enjoyment of learning, empathy and resilience, ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings and science literacy.

Can physics be taught through dance? (Photo: Pixabay)

Examples of arts-STEMM integrative learning include The Physics of Dance course at Yale University. A physics and a dance professor collaboratively teach the principles of physics through the kinesthetic elements of dance. The University of Michigan’s Integrated Product Development course—jointly taught by an art and design, and a business professor—has students from engineering, design and business explore together the creative, technological and business-related questions involved in developing new products from ideation and prototyping to production and bringing to market.  Oxford University’s Said Business School uses the performing arts to teach business leadership in its MBA program. 

In many American K-12 schools, STEM has already morphed into STEAM (with the A for Arts).   The professional theater company Shakespeare-in-Detroit collaborates with Detroit Public Schools educators to teach “the Science of lighting production, the Technology of sound design, the Engineering or construction of a form or costume, the Art of classical performance, and the Mathematics of building a set…..along with development of soft skills such as communication and confidence” and increased literary competencies, for students in the third to twelfth grades.

In the Ann Arbor Public Schools, kindergarteners build dioramas to depict animal habitats and biomes, while first-graders create musical instruments to learn about sound and light waves, and conduct online experiments on Chrome Music Lab.  With the move to online learning under COVID-19 school shutdowns, the popularity of STEAM-related educational products and programs has surged.

Art is often already integrated into science education at the preschool level. (Photo: Pxfuel)

There is also widespread recognition that the arts and humanities should not just be instruments to achieve developmental ends, but are desirable for their own sake, as valuable consumption goods, and as expressions of our humanity.  In the still-unlikely event that automation reduces humans to the 15-hour workweek envisaged by economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s, he believed the arts would be a logical outlet for their freed time and creative energies.

Implications for Singapore

Singapore comes second only to the U.S. in the Swiss business school IMD’s 2019 world digital competitiveness ranking.  Yet without developing greater competencies in the arts and humanities, we risk losing out as higher levels and ever-greater portions of global tech value chains are increasingly accounted for by activities and skills derived from or reliant on them. 

The “streaming wars” among “hard” tech companies like Amazon and Apple as they venture into the entertainment space, and the soaring performance of an originally “old-line” entertainment company like Disney, illustrate the growing importance of arts content in the world of tech, and of tech in the world of the arts. This is something already familiar to millions of video gamers the world over, and has been boosted by COVID-19 shutdowns.

The marriage of the arts and technology has long been central to video games. The game Gorogoa, for example, is made up entirely of hand-drawn panels. (Video: Annapurna Interactive)

“Design thinking” is increasingly popular as a core business capability involving understanding and innovating to serve unmet consumer needs.  The consumer is a human being who evolves in particular historical, sociological, psychological and cultural contexts; it is these contexts that the arts and humanities study and express, and it is impossible to serve the consumer without understanding them.

Machine learning and the STEM field of data analytics can yield patterns of consumer behavior, but making sense of them requires interpretation that relies on insights gleaned from the arts and humanities.  Thus tech employers’ demand for liberal arts and humanities graduates has increased as developments in data analytics and AI progress, while in finance, asset management firms hire liberal arts, social science and performing arts majors, to access diverse thinking and communication skills, like “the ability to tell a story” from data to investor clients.

By contrast, a November 2019 Brookings Institution study forecast that computer programmers, financial advisers, and certain types of engineers and software developers are among those whose jobs are most likely to be displaced by AI. 

Singapore’s active arts community, which has produced internationally recognised films such as I Dream of Singapore, requires greater support.

For Singapore, the unique value that we can deliver to the nearly all-encompassing world of global tech is our understanding of people and societies in our own regional neighborhood.  For this, we need to expand our competencies beyond STEM and the Western world of digitalization to include the humanities, and the visual, performing and literary arts of our Southeast Asian neighbors. This can bring the priceless payoff of a clearer identification with and deeper understanding of our own history, culture and identity, contributing to national cohesiveness and a capacity for true innovation based on who we are, as reflected in our own—as well as others’—stories and artistic creations.

The COVID-19 crisis among foreign workers reminds us of the Singapore arts community’s proactive role in highlighting and creating empathy for them, through numerous plays, poetry, stories, photography exhibitions, and films. Some of these have won showings and awards at international festivals, for instance Ilo Ilo (Cannes, 2013), I Dream of Singapore (Berlinale, 2020) and A Land Imagined (Locarno, 2018). Like the people they portray, these arts professionals have much to contribute to our nation.  We should have heeded them in the past, and need to support them more in the uncertain future.

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