Thought's on STEM? And Cool/Scary new Tech


Yet another physics Ph.D. here! I am looking to get into nuclear physics, and by that I don’t mean weaponry or anything like that but rather researching the structure of atomic nuclei and the strong force binding them. My family has little to no tie to academia and I grew up in a fairly rural town, so the academic life is something I’ve been working toward for quite a while but is also something I’m not completely sold on yet.

As for my thoughts on STEM, I of course think it is important for people to get a grasp of what it means to make scientific progress and how it is achieved, but I do not think it is the end-all be-all of rational thought and societal progress. I think a lot of the push toward science and away from the arts comes from certain stereotypes about what intelligence is and how it is generally thought to manifest as logic rather than creativity. This also leads to the tendency of wanting to apply scientific methods to inappropriate situations, as @sparkyclarkson mentioned.

With regards to tech, I’m generally not that enthusiastic about cutting edge technology, but I recently been getting involved with a small group trying to understand quantum computing and how it can assist physics research. There are already intensive computational efforts to try and understand nuclear physics, and when quantum computers can be realized they should be able to immensely cut down on computing time and allow for much bigger systems to be feasibly simulated.


I’ve been annoyed at the idea of “STEM” as a concept since it’s inception. It gives the impression of a big divide between ‘serious’ academic pursuits and those that are frivolous – not only a false distinction but a harmful one. It’s a huge buzzword in the education field, mostly around fundraising. All the expansions of the term are silly too, STREM, STEAM, STEMM, etc. So much that people do is more multi-disciplinary than people realize and I don’t think these acronyms help people to appreciate the wealth of talent out there.

Not that being a professor isn’t a fine goal, but it seems strange to me that you would call your goal being a STEM professor instead of a physics professor. It would be hard to be a biology or psychology professor with a PhD in physics. I also find it strange that PhD programs focus on novel research and yet having one is a requirement to teach at a college level. PhD programs, in general, do not require any training that helps you be a good teacher.


Yeah, I think it’s pretty much a scam–not to say that Science, Technology, or any of that isn’t important, but it’s part of a long-term narrative that leans heavily on the notion of personal responsibility of individual workers, as opposed to social responsibility. Which is to say; STEM isn’t going fix Capitalism, at least not by itself. The problem of automation and globalization have been identified for the better part of a century now (crystallized pretty well in Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano); it’s not that workers are dum-dums, it’s that industrial capitalism means ever fewer amounts of human bodies are part of the means of production, and that will always be a problem as long as we are scared and tricked into avoiding redistribution of capital.


Fully Automated Wealth-Concentrated Straight Earth Capitalism


I’d happily support any improvement in education which reduces the tendency toward magical thinking in American society. A STEM degree certainly isn’t a prerequisite for critical analysis and basic empiricism.


I studied Creative Writing at a STEM centered University, and let me tell ya, the humanities were undervalued.

I’m more scared of emphasizing a STEM education that doesn’t provide students with moral, philosophical, and compassionate framework for contemplating their work than I am of any one nightmare technology.


I think my problem with the way most STEM fields operate right now is that there’s a lack of room for normative discussion. My ex is working on a PhD in engineering education with a focus on LGBTQ+ issues and how the decisions people make in STEM fields have social implications. He has received enormous pushback on this from STEM folks, under the guise that it’s not really their responsibility to worry about that stuff.

In economics, a distinction is made between normative and positive discussions. Positive economics are the closest to what would be considered a part of STEM, as it’s concerned only with the facts of causal relationships. Normative economics, on the other hand, allows for policy discussions about what is good or bad.

You could certainly argue that econ as an institution values proper education in positive over normative economics (especially certain branches, such as the Chicago school), but at least space is being made for these discussions. Most pure science and engineering doesn’t make any room for ethics and that’s what makes tech like this so scary.


I definitely feel like StEM tends to think of itself as apolitical and determinative rather than stochastic like the world actually is, and that’s very disheartening.


As yet another Physics PhD, I think the recent March for Science discussions were interesting (and a bit disheartening) as evidence of how many scientists think science should be “apolitical”. There still is a lot of full on ivory tower shit out there.


I love the actual work content of STEM but find that way too often I don’t actually get to focus on it

Like, let me design all your cool stuff, I’m totally down

But the industry itself is totally unfriendly to anyone who isn’t the status quo of white male and it can be really unfortunate as someone who doesn’t fit into that category; I’m at the point where I’ve gone from “will be an engineer for the rest of my life” to “maybe I should consider other options for my next job” in under two years, five since graduating

At the education level, I’m realizing more and more how useful the arts classes actually could be to STEAM folks; there’s a lot of pushback against taking those internally, especially in engineering where you’re already taking N->infinity classes, but my film class actually taught me a lot about being critical of media and how to look beyond its face value, analyzing cinematography, writing, theme, technology, historical events that could have influenced the art, etc.

I wish I’d had the opportunity to take more, because I’ve certainly used the lessons of this one class more than, say, advanced heat transfer in my career


Also think that anyone majoring in a STEM field should be required to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There’s a big popular belief that Science™ is some static, immovable entity which is right all the time about everything, but historically speaking, that’s just not true.


I think another super issue with STEM is how masculine/patriarchy based it is. I can’t comprehend being a woman in STEM given the amount of issues there are.


As for improving STEM k-12 education, I’m getting my masters of teaching in science now and most of my classes are about how to have a more open-ended and student-centered classroom. For example, instead of just telling students about genetic inheritance (codominance, simple recessive, etc) show them some real life animal examples that exhibit those patterns and try to get them to figure out if there are any rules before explaining everything. It’s really fun and really different than what I recall doing as a student.

Bonus webcomic related to computer learning:


Ooh, how bad was the gender ratio? I studied Creative Writing at an ostensibly liberal arts school and I was one of maybe 4-5 guys (That’s including the years above and below me) studying it. I can’t even imagine what it would be like at a STEM school.


The ASME statistic for women in my field, mechanical engineering, is 6%. That number absolutely checked out. I think there may have been somewhere between 10 and 12 of us by graduation.

And then about a quarter of them didn’t even get jobs in the industry to start with. I haven’t seen many peel off from the industry since then, but I guess it’s a matter of time based on stats.


Well, I actually counted the high female/male ratio as a positive, but that really underscores the diversity problems STEM courses had.


Hey everyone! Things have finally calmed down in my life enough for me to sit down and start responding to people. I really like the discussions that I’m seeing pop up on this thread. I pretty much agree with everything posted here. There are a whole shitton of problems with STEM, including its perception to the public, its lack of representation, and the false concept that science is purely apolitical.

Here come some specific, directed responses:

@padraic_padraic - To answer your question about my research, it’s basically about using ML to quickly predict and discover new pharmaceutical drug molecules.

@therealtakeshi - I super agree. I recently read this article, and boy howdy, it is fucking scary what can happen if we don’t account for the biases in our training data.

@TheElectricFields - I had pretty much the exact same problem as you, but with math. Hated it in high school, and super loved it in college. I don’t think it even had to do with quality of teaching because both my high school teachers and college professors weren’t that great. I think it was the fact that I was studying with likeminded people who actually wanted to learn the subject matter, rather than being forced to take it (which is the case in high school).

@Peregrin - I totally agree. When I tell people I am doing a PhD in physics, they immediately assume a) that I am smarter than them and b) I will solve some major world problem with science in the next 3 years. I absolutely hate both of these reactions. I always make it a point to say that doing a PhD doesn’t require intelligence, it just requires discipline, as does anything else if you want to become really good at it. As to your second point, I see another manifestation of this problem all the time in research. For example, when people cite a bit of code or software that was used to generate their results, they cite a paper by the original author of the code. This means that the people who worked on improving the code and adding new features usually don’t get any recognition for this work at all.

@sparkyclarkson - I absolutely agree with point 1. this is a major reason why STEM by itself is not enough. I do think, however, that applying the scientific method to any problem quickly identifies what CAN be done to solve it in an efficient manner (compared to trying solutions with a random trial and error approach). At that point, the question of what SHOULD be the case can be applied. As to your second point, I was of course aware of that fact even as I set that goal. I want to teach for reasons of personal fulfillment: seeing the enthusiasm that comes with a student finally understanding a subject that they were struggling with is incredible to me. And yes, CRISPR is definitely a good example of a potentially terrifying technology.

@SpaceButler - I don’t think the concept of STEM inherently recognizes itself as something more substantial than other fields. I do think capitalism has significantly contributed to establishing this connotation that STEM is more academically serious, mainly because of the commercialization of technologies that result in a more direct line to profit (which is king in a capitalist society). As to your second point, the reason I said STEM professor rather than physics is because my undergraduate and masters training was in chemical engineering, not pure physics. I could see myself teaching math, physics, or certain chemistry courses. I agree that there is a degree of disconnect between having a PhD (that requires you to conduct new research) and teaching at the college level. While this is maybe the exception and not the rule, I can honestly say that I would not be where I am right now if not for the mentoring I received from Ph.D. students that were teaching assistants during my upper division undergraduate courses. These grad students were researchers that were working at the cutting edge of the subjects that were taught in my upper div courses. For example, I got a lot of help in my reaction kinetics course from TAs that were developing new catalysts in their research labs. I have been emulating their example now that I am a TA myself.

@Justin - I think that advances in technology will more quickly bring about the overthrow of capitalism for the reasons you mention. I just hope that there isn’t a significant backlash against science as a discipline as a result.


I loved my college math professors! They had such amazing personalities and they were not afraid to let them spill out when the time called for them.


This study concludes that the “skill gap” of US workers is a fantasy, and that reading skill correlates higher than STEM with employability: