Vol. 43, No. 2, April 2014
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Teaching History to STEM Students: A Report from the 2014 AHA Meeting
by Deborah R. Coen, Barnard College, Columbia University
Motivated by the belief that the future of the historical discipline depends in part on demonstrating the value of history courses for all students, non-majors as well as majors, American Historical Association president Kenneth Pomeranz organized a panel at the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association on teaching history to students in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The panelists he chose—Scott Sandage, Steven Usselman, Will Broadhead, Jenny Leigh Smith, and Susan Ambrose—are all historians who have had successful careers at elite engineering schools, where nearly all students go on to careers in STEM fields. Deborah Coen served as chair for the session.
Scott Sandage, an associate professor of American social and cultural history at Carnegie Mellon, recalled his initial impression of CMU in the mid ’90s as a “bizarro” university. At that time, the campus was ruled by a “zero-sum mentality,” according to which any support for the humanities was understood to come at the expense of the sciences. CMU struck him as a “world-class community college,” blind to the value of a well-rounded liberal arts education. So Sandage began sharpening his arguments as a “missionary” for his field, until he finally hit on a way to communicate the value of the study of history to his colleagues in engineering. “What I call change over time,” he now tells them, “you call innovation.” “We need to seize the innovation language,” Sandage said. He noted happily that times have changed, and in 2011 CMU received one of its largest gifts ever, a $265 million grant for the humanities.
A common but far less effective strategy is to insist that history cultivates analytical reasoning. Any discipline can claim to do that, observed Steven Usselman, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Tech and chair of their School of History, Technology, and Society. Instead, Usselman suggested, historians should make the argument that history “complements and enhances” a technical education. We as historians need to remember that engineering students are more than just number-crunchers; they are preparing to “engage with the broad challenges facing humanity.” It is to that end that a minor in a humanities discipline can be said to serve them well.
Do STEM Students Have Special Needs?
According to the panelists, STEM students occasionally take history classes by chance rather than by choice: sometimes because a significant other enrolled in the course, sometimes simply because the class was down the hall from a previous one. So do history professors need to do things differently for these students? Jenny Leigh Smith, an assistant professor of Soviet and environmental history at Georgia Tech, shared some tips for adapting to the quirks of STEM students. Since they’re relatively “lazy readers,” she assigns shorter, on-line sources. Since they’re often “war nerds,” she plays up military history. And she finds that they usually have the motivation to improve their writing skills, since they know that good communicators are highly valued in the engineering professions.
But Will Broadhead, an associate professor of ancient Greek and Roman history at MIT, finds that STEM students benefit from much the same lessons as history majors. He admits that he has the advantage of a certain “consilience” between his subfield and the interests of STEM students, who often take a keen interest in Roman aqueducts and the latest methods in archeology. Yet Broadhead continues to emphasize the same themes that have been central to Roman history for centuries, namely “rhetoric and consensus.” Indeed, it’s important to him to show MIT students that not all of the ancient world is “scientifically intelligible.”
A crucial tactic in teaching STEM students, as Sandage and Usselman agreed, is learning to talk their talk. Thus Usselman emphasizes the problem-solving aspects of historical work. He introduces history as the study of “dynamical systems with many variables that don’t reach equilibrium;” and he makes frequent reference to quantitative data in order to convey the significance of historical phenomena to students used to numerical evidence. Another angle that appeals to STEM students is the role of the imagination in historical scholarship. Usselman recommends appealing to their interests in science fiction and thought experiments: “talk about alternate universes,” he suggested. Laughing, he even recommended calling writing assignments “problem sets.” Or one might follow Sandage’s advice: don’t assign an analytical essay, assign a “cross-functional analysis.”
Speaking from her perspective as an international consultant on engineering education, Susan Ambrose of Northeastern University was glad to offer an optimistic message. “We have allies,” she informed her audience of historians. She was referring first to the National Academy of Engineering, and second to the employers who hire STEM students. Both groups see history as beneficial for several reasons. First, history teaches engineers how to analyze “systems” that include human as well as technical elements. Historical study demonstrates, for instance, how to contextualize success and failure, how to trace the social repercussions of technologies, and how to identify the roots of innovation. Second, history teaches engineers about cultural diversity: it alerts them to the roles that the U.S. has played in the world—past and present—and teaches them how to think and communicate about conflicts of values. These are strengths that historians could perhaps do more to emphasize.
Some questions raised in the discussion period concerned challenges faced by professors at non-elite institutions, which were not represented on the panel. How, for instance, should history professors address students with weak literacy skills? Another audience member asked for advice about teaching ethical lessons to future engineers based on the less noble aspects of the history of science and technology. Ambrose advised that instructors can prepare students for such lessons by warning them that they won’t like what they’re about to hear, but that they need to listen anyway. Surprisingly absent from the conversation were issues of gender and race in the classroom, which are typically central to discussions of STEM education. All in all, it is to be hoped that historians teaching STEM students will continue to trade tips and to raise questions about how it can be done better.