Keeping Girls in Science By Promoting the Value of the Humanities for Tech Majors


BetaBeat asked girls taking computer programming at Stuyvesant High School about their experiences and got some fantastic replies, like this insightful one from Izzi Clark:

I’ve always thought of myself as kind of equally suspended between humanities and math/science, and I think that’s why I found computer science so appealing. Clearly, it involves math and science, but it’s also a language with structure and style. I am still pleasantly surprised when I read a chunk of code and actually understand what it does—the same as when I understood French passages in French class. And writing a program is almost like writing a story (cheesy analogy, I know). There are many ways you can structure it but you have to find the best way, and then when you’re done you have a product that actually does something and you created it. And it’s probably one of the most gratifying feelings in the world.

While repeatedly the girls reference their interest in the humanities, not all of them just plan on merging their liberal arts modes of thinking with their computer science interests and sometimes it’s because of the way they see academic programs set up, as in the case of Victoria Stempel:

 Now that I know about the potenial of comp sci, I am considering taking it in college. However, I do not want to abandon the path I have been interested in pursuing for a long time. Ideally, this would mean double majoring in English and computer science. Unfortunately, some universities with muliple colleges house these two subjects in different schools (ex: UPenn, Binghamton), making double majoring in a liberal arts course and an engineering course almost impossible. Due to this issue, I am very conflicted as to which path to take in life—or even which specific colleges to apply to within larger universities!

Eskeptrical Engineer picked up that repeatedly the girls were stressing that they viewed their interests in humanities as a greater obstacle to their interest in computer science:

I hate that girls (and boys too, for that matter) feel like they have to decide between the humanities/social sciences and STEM. I suspect this partly contributes to why girls don’t see themselves going into science and engineering. Not a single girl featured in this piece said anything about high heels or makeup, but they did talk about their interests in English and art. I strongly believe that not only are the humanities and social sciences compatible with STEM, they can make you better at it. And I say that as an electrical engineer who also did a minor in Communications and spent all of college in various music ensembles.
I don’t mean for this to be exhaustive, but here are some of the ways that a background in other areas can help you as an engineer…

Read the list here. EE covers the value to an electrical engineering career that can be gained from studying Communications, English, Literature, foreign languages, International Relations, Art, Design, Sociology, Psychology, and History.

It strikes me as ironic and distressing that it is precisely girls’ well-roundedness, their desires to engage the world from more than just a techie perspective (rather than from less than one) that is sometimes leading them to split with the sciences when they see their choice as an either/or between science and the humanities. A less specialized academy could be encouraging and actively nurturing their curious and naturally diversifying minds and create overall better scientists and engineers as a result. And EE’s list overlaps between engineering and non-techie majors is a good place to start thinking about how to expand the nature of tech education in a way that both integrates and enhances it with other effective styles of human thinking, to the overall betterment of the students.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Eskeptrical Engineer

    I really like your suggestion that we expand technical education. I definitely see people on the STEM side who don’t quite appreciate how much they can benefit from studying non-technical subjects.

    • Leo

      I definitely can agree that there are engineers who could use better writing skills. I am a software engineer and we do have to write at least some documentation. And the systems engineers have to write requirements for the software. I’ve seen some poorly written stuff in my 5 years and a few months I went through a horrible discussion over the correct usage of to/too. I had spotted incorrect usage in something a minor as commentary and fixed it. (The commentary originally said “to short” in regards to a length.) My head hurt a bit over the fact that fully grown adults were thinking the original was correct and that my fix was wrong.

  • Ysanne

    Interesting comments. They nicely reflect how people who never wrote a line of code don’t expect computer programming to be something a normal person can actually understand. (Maybe this has to do with how it’s done in the movies: Quick typing and magic?)

    Anyhow, I also noticed that especially women seem to be intimidated by this, and “programming for women” courses can be really successful if they manage to get past the first obstacle of daring to give it a go.

    From the perspective of someone in the humanities, what are your thoughts/experiences on this? Having grown up in a techie family, I have no idea what it feels like to be a non-techie.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure if people who are considering going into CS or English really know what they’re signing up for anyway. After all, CS is not really about learning programming languages and sysadmin stuff, but pretty much boils down to learning a lot of maths-related theory, because really, programming is just solving huge, more-or-less practical-sounding word problems. :-) And similarly, studying English is not just the “reading books and talking about them” fun that most high-school students expect.

  • Eamon Knight

    When I did my undergrad degree in EE, we had to take two full credits in Humanities, and that was all (I took Introductory German, and Elementary Logic/Philosophy of Mathematics. The last two were sort of cheating, but they were given by the Philosophy department, so they qualified). I’m trying to figure out where you could fit a serious non-tech concentration into the Engineering syllabus without either making it a five-year programme or burning out the students — as it was we had like, twice as many lecture and lab hours as the arts students! There’s no way we’d have time to do the readings and write the essays!

    • Eskeptrical Engineer

      That’s definitely part of the problem. I did take five years to finish, which I realize not all students are in a position to do.

  • robertbaden

    What no dance or music?
    You’d be surprised at the number of engineers, math majors, and other science types in the dance groups in which I participate.

    • Ysanne

      The motivations of the maths/eng/science guys in ballroom dancing seem to be a tad cliche, though.
      Some do it just for fun, and there’s definitely a tendency to perfectionism for people in the field, which just matches nicely with competitive dancing (and even more with orchestra music). But there’s also quite a number of them who have been told by female friends that ballroom dancing is the one place where women are very glad about having guy at all, so they won’t need to worry about competing with the supposedly much more attractive and “masculine” med and arts and sports guys.
      Not that I’d mind. I do enjoy having a conversation about pattern recognition while trying to get the steps right. ;-)

      Oh and btw: Rock climbing. It’s hugely popular with scientists, apparently. I guess because of its “tiny rewards for a huge effort are enough to motivate you to keep going” mechanism.