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English, STEM, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Virginia Commonwealth University engineering professor, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Ph.D., launched a successful writing program for engineering students, but he has concerns that much needed initiatives such as this may fall by the wayside due to the current climate in US higher education.

In his own words:
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been a front-and-center pedagogic issue for at least a decade, with the promise that STEM education from kindergarten through college will improve the nation’s security, competitiveness, health, and standard of living. Better paying jobs will be awaiting the fortunate few who graduate with majors in one of the STEM fields. All of that is more or less true.

In 2006, the National Academies expressed concern about the declining state of STEM education in the United States. The Department of Education, NASA, National Science Foundation, and other federal agencies chipped in to help alleviate the concern. In 2012, President Obama asked for an additional billion dollars to beef up STEM instruction via a Master Teachers Corps.

Select states, corporations, and philanthropists have been dashing around cash and resources. Several universities are planning to double the number of graduates in science and engineering during the next decade. The race is on and is just as intense as the one that followed Sputnik’s launch in 1957, except that this time the U.S. is not competing with another superpower.

But there is a down side to most good things. The number of students, the resources, and even the number of courses taken to graduate are all finite. So, something has to give. The likely casualty may be the humanities and particularly communication skills. Both young and experienced engineers/scientists need to communicate, and the lack of adequate skills can be a career showstopper. Professors of humanities have been sounding the alarm.

Communication skills
As a professor of engineering, I would like to add a lone voice to those who teach humanities.

An intelligent, overachieving engineering senior recently wrote the following opening sentence of a report about lotus leaves and the engineer’s desire to mimic their biochemical processes:

“This paper discusses an interesting topic, biomimetic, that engineering could benefit greatly by paying more attention to developed structures on animals that are highly successful in environments with similar conditions under which an engineering design is meant to operate.”

Who could make sense of such non-sense?
After witnessing our engineering students’ declining ability to communicate effectively, I decided to take matters in my own hands. Last fall, I offered to seniors and graduate engineering students an elective course on the art of writing. My colleagues in the English department enthusiastically supported the endeavor, and some even volunteered to deliver guest lectures.

In the Effective Technical Writing course, there are no exams, but only weekly reading and writing assignments. I challenge the students to improve upon the writings of famed novelists and newspaper columnists as well as well-written technical papers, all of which I carefully select. I also ask the students to write original essays on select technical as well as non-technical topics.

The class time is split between open discussions and structured lectures on the beauty and pitfalls of the language. Judging from the students’ evaluations as well as the quantifiable improvement in their writing skills throughout the 14-week semester, the experiment has been a resounding success. The course is now part of the permanent curriculum.

Salmon fishing in the U.S.
Because of its very nature and inadequate teaching resources, the elective course is limited to a small percentage (about 1.5 percent) of the engineering graduate and undergraduate students in one university. This is but a drop in the ocean and I feel like a fish swimming against the current.

In Paul Torday’s 2007 novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which was made into a successful film in 2011, a Scottish ichthyologist is recruited to help realize a wealthy sheik’s vision of bringing fly fishing to the not so fish-friendly desert. The farm salmon, airlifted from Scotland, instinctively swim upstream, the radicals fight the dream of enriching the lives of the Yemenis, the two protagonists are in other relations but fall in love nevertheless, and the entire absurd and unachievable project is an upstream journey of faith to make the impossible possible.

In the current economic and political environment, securing the resources to inject a heavier dose of the humanities into STEM programs is salmon fishing in the Yemen.

Just as we cannot prosper without STEM, we should not diminish the humanities either. Students can learn a great deal during their formative years, and we should not miss the opportunity to broadly educate them. Some STEM students gravitated there to minimize their exposure to the “drudgery” of the humanities, but it is the academe’s duty to show the young minds how studying the humanities can enrich their lives.

Article by: Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Ph.D., Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The opinion piece above appeared in different forms, titles, and lengths in the research blog, VCU Across the Spectrum (July 29, 2013), and in the magazines Physics Today (July 16, 2013) and Mechanical Engineering, and in the newspapers Free Lance-Star (June 30, 2013) and Richmond Times-Dispatch (July 17, 2013).

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