Every undergrad in the history of college has had to decide what to major in, and that decision has usually involved choosing whether to pursue a major that the student likes or a major that will get him/her a job. Today, this question often forces students to choose between the study of a STEM subject or a humanities discipline.
By the time a student has reached college, they have heard from parents, guidance counselors and employers how valuable a STEM degree is. Pursuing science, technology, engineering or math offers knowledge of technical skills, great job prospects and high earning potential.
Even while understanding the perks of a STEM education, some students feel more passionate about the humanities, a seemingly opposed set of subjects focusing on human culture and society. English, history and philosophy are but a few of the fields in humanities, a set of subjects that allow students to develop writing skills, cultural competence and other “soft” skills.
Especially at a large research institution like the University of Connecticut, some students feel a great divide between STEM and the humanities. The two areas of study just seem too different to combine: one focuses on facts and figures and their applications and the other on the analysis of human art, history, beliefs and heritage.
However, there are a few students who have been able to bridge that gap with a double major or dual degree between a STEM field and a humanities subject: Victoria DeTrolio, Amelia Henkel and Matthew Shirvell all elected to study across different disciplines in their undergraduate education and have found various means of uniting the two fields of study.
Many people nowadays believe that STEM majors will get students a job. Humanities majors, on the other hand, are seen as ones that students pursue “for fun” or because they like the subject. Often, students have a hard time believing that STEM can be fun and interesting and that humanities can lead to a good job. So, it might seem like a student doubling majoring in both STEM and humanities has the best of both worlds.
For Amelia Henkel, a tenth-semester student pursuing a dual degree, physics and human rights were always the game plan. Henkel says that her love of looking up at the sky and her concern for human rights issues have always influenced her to learn more about both topics.
“Physics was never really a question, I was super into it since I was little,” Henkel said. Henkel also learned about human rights issues at a young age and brought her passion for both subjects to college. Along the way, Henkel has also picked up minors in women’s, gender and sexuality studies and mathematics.
Similarly, sixth-semester allied health and Spanish dual degree student Victoria DeTrolio knew why she wanted to study her particular fields: Allied health because she wants to help people, and Spanish because she wants to help people across the world (and because she simply enjoys the subject).
Matthew Shirvell, however, found the path to his current pursuit to be a little more winding: The sixth-semester English and mathematics double major started out studying chemistry. Because he had fulfilled some gen-ed requirements in high school, he was able to add several English classes to his freshman year schedule. He enjoyed his English classes and decided that it was time for a change of major in the first semester of his sophomore year.
“So at one point I went to my dad, and I was like, ‘Oh, I want to switch to English because I really like English,’ and after saying that like three times throughout the course of the day, he finally goes, ‘Oh wait, like for real?’” Shirvell said. “So then we came up with this compromise like ‘Ok, you can study English or whatever you want, but you have to get a bachelor’s of science in something as well.’”
As Shirvell said, many people are surprised when students like him say that they’re studying two seemingly incompatible fields. According to him, there’s essentially three reactions that he gets when he says that he’s doubling majoring in STEM and humanities: “Oh cool,” “Wait, what?” and “Why?”
Henkel agrees, noting that people usually have the same reaction when she says she’s studying physics and human rights.
“Just in small talk, everyone always says, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting combination,’” Henkel said. “And half the time it’s followed by ‘And what do you plan to do with that?’”
Henkel also observed that many people ascribe more prestige to her STEM field. She believes that people sometimes think that human rights simply teaches students their morals or how to be an ethical person. She made it a point to note that human rights is as developed a field of study as physics or any other hard science.
“Usually people just say like, ‘Ooh, physics, it must be hard’ a lot of the times, and I don’t think anyone’s ever commented on the fact that like ‘Wow, human rights must be really difficult to think about, human rights must be like a hard pill to swallow,’” Henkel said.
One example Henkel gave was her politics of torture class. Sure, she said, a student could “Understand it easier than a massive integral,” but that didn’t mean that the information was easy to conceptualize or to accept.
Putting STEM and humanities together
While other people may think that STEM and humanities are incompatible, all three students have found some interesting ways to relates the two disciplines.
Although the mathematics department doesn’t list any English classes as possible related classes for the major, Shirvell has noticed a similarity in his English literature classes and his proof-based mathematics courses.
“It’s a lot of like trying to explain how you’re getting from point A to point B even if you already kind of know that, so it’s kind of like showing your work, and in that way, English is the same thing,” Shirvell said. “You can pick any argument you want, and as long as you use your textual evidence, you could say whatever you want to from point A to point B.”
Additionally, Henkel cited the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) as an organization which she sees as merging physics and human rights.
“They use astronomy to help countries uplift their human rights systems and increase their science and technology infrastructure,” Henkel said. “So that’s kind of bringing astronomy to human rights and physics to human rights.”
Henkel also noted that the idea of gender equality, a much-discussed topic in her human rights classes, can be applied to the recruitment of more women for STEM fields. Equality between genders would create a healthier, more productive environment in STEM and is something for which Henkel, as the president of the Women in Physics Club, strives in her own work.
“I think that, on the other hand, bringing the ethics-based humanities into STEM allows people to kind of consider our impact on humanity a little bit more, like what we’re doing and like what our experiments are for,” Henkel said.
Even DeTrolio, who admits that her Spanish classes are very different from the classes that she takes for allied health, has found overlap. Her Spanish courses will allow her to be a better doctor who is able to communicate with more patients.
People don’t think that humanities and STEM can be combined, but DeTrolio knows that they can.
“They’re so kind of stigmatized as like oh, you’re either like a science person, or you’re like in science and math or English and writing,” DeTrolio said. “Honestly, for every subject, you’re going to need both concepts, so it’s all a combination—it’s all a balance.
Using what they’ve learned
No matter which path they choose to take, the three see bright futures for themselves. They say that their interdisciplinary studies have prepared them for various tracks and that they’d be happy to pursue many different things that fall under the umbrella of their wide-ranging interests.
DeTrolio definitely sees a future wherein she’s applying her Spanish-speaking skills to a career in the medical field. She hopes to pursue global health and to care for and heal patients in Spanish-speaking countries. Her dual degree in Spanish and allied health will teach her the cultural knowledge she’ll need to connect with her patients while treating them.
“I feel like communication is the first step to fixing any problem, and if I can’t communicate with (patients), then that would be an issue, so that’s why I’m so passionate about Spanish,” DeTrolio said. “And I think learning a second language is so important, especially in today’s world.”
Henkel too says that no matter how different physics and human rights may seem, she can’t give up either in her future pursuits.
“I feel like I can’t just do one now,” Henkel said. “Now that I’m starting to see the overlap and how little the overlap is explored, I really want to be able to do that more with my career, either with working with the OAD office more or using my knowledge in human rights and women’s studies to uplift whatever physics department I end up in if I become a professor or a researcher … Either way, I need to have both of them have a role.”
Shirvell thinks differently, stating that he might have to choose one field over the other eventually. Right now though, he says that he’s happy to pursue both.
“If I ever thought about dropping one of them, I’m always like, ‘No, I can’t,’ because … even if I complain about it sometimes, like no, I still love taking these classes,” Shirvell said.
Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.