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LAST WORD - Opinion by John Robertson

Beauty — What a Concept!

We should open students’ eyes to the aesthetic appeal of STEM.

By Lakshmi N. Reddi

At a recent professional society meeting attended by distinguished researchers from engineering and computer sciences, the moderator solicited ideas for symposium themes highlighting the beauty and benefits of scientific research. The group was prolific in coming up with themes of benefit to the society but had trouble articulating the beauty of its endeavors. Our inability to relate the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics enterprise to beauty might be at the core of the problems we are facing in recruiting and retaining students in STEM disciplines. 

Only 6 percent of 24-year-olds in the United States have earned a first degree in the natural sciences or engineering, placing the country 20th in a comparison group of 24 countries. There is a huge racial disparity in STEM graduate production. While 33 percent of white students and 42 percent of Asian American students who enter college aspiring to major in a STEM discipline complete their degrees within five years, only 22 percent of Latino students, 18 percent of black students, and 19 percent of American Indian students do so. These numbers call for a multidimensional understanding of the problem, and articulating beauty in STEM disciplines is an important dimension.  

Many students leave engineering after stumbling in their first college math course.

There is perhaps a historical basis for seeing science and technology as disconnected from nature and beauty. The industrial development and advent of machines, dubbed the “second creation” of the Garden of Eden, had skeptics right from the beginning. Henry David Thoreau, in the 19th century, proclaimed that “the dappled sunlight falling across the path of the poet provokes joy beyond that which human technology can bring.” Walther Rathenau, the early 20th-century German industrialist and philosopher, was concerned that mechanization would turn humans into mere components of systems. These historic attitudes pose important challenges in STEM education: How do we train our students to see beauty in all forms, man- and nature-made? How do we accomplish a paradigm shift away from viewing the human-built world as competing against the natural world? Technology does not have to be set up against the romantic view of nature. Love of beauty is innate to STEM students just as it is to all humans. They must come to see that well-designed, well-performing technology has its own elegant appeal.

STEM training is necessarily logic-based. The training required by these disciplines involves probing the objective realities, understanding the phenomenological world, and formulating theories, concepts, and designs. Our paradigm shift should be toward providing this training within a framework that integrates acquiring scientific and technical knowledge with experiencing the beauty of all forms. The common denominator of all our learning endeavors, STEM or otherwise, is learning to be creative, whether it is in the creation of an engineering infrastructure in the objective world or in the expression of a subjective reality through a painting or a poem. Pairing the training of mathematical logic with the ability to see beauty in one’s own subjective world is one of the distinctive traits of great inventors and entrepreneurs. Visionaries see a possibility beyond what is visible and work within objective constraints to achieve it. In STEM disciplines, constraints are imposed by the laws of nature; in the liberal arts, they are the limitations of language, music, and color compositions. Our ability to imagine a creative outcome provides the impetus to navigate through these constraints.

Just as the beauty of a rose lets us endure the pricks from its stem, we can help our students overcome their struggles in STEM by firing their imaginations with its beautiful potential. .

Lakshmi N. Reddi is dean of the University Graduate School at Florida International University.

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