History and STEM

In a nation where the focus is being put on the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM for short), many of us in the fields of humanities are beginning to question our relevance.  With an education that included four years at a liberal arts college, I am definitely among those who hope to keep our history relevant in times of shifting focus.  So…let’s talk about history and STEM…

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Camera.1956. Gift of Mrs. Frieda B. Cantarow. 2001.88.1.

When I first started hearing about STEM, I didn’t think much of it.  I mean, what do science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have to do with me, I work in a history museum? (please forgive the initial naivety) It turns out, they have a lot to do with me.  Not only is it important to understand that even students focusing on these STEM fields of education can learn something from humanities, like how to think critically and back up arguments, but also that understanding the history of your field, regardless of your field, can give you valuable insight into what you are currently doing.

Now, if you do not know the history of people like Marie Curie or Albert Einstein is it still possible to be successful in the fields of science and mathematics?  Of course it is.  But if you DO know these people, the successes and failures, the long hours on experiments that went nowhere, even the humble beginnings, you can better relate to these people and the discoveries made and realize that you too can do these incredible things…no matter your gender, social situation, or any other outside factors.  If knowledge is empowering…and history is knowledge….then history is empowering!  (see what I did there with the transitive property of equality…)

I know that old sayings are often repeated and repeated to a point where they begin to lose their luster, but, being a history nerd, this one has always been one of my favorites…that those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.  What if, as a NASA engineer you never studied the origins of space travel?  What if you never looked at the Apollo 13 expedition?  You wouldn’t know what to do in order to improve upon the current designs of space equipment.  By learning the history of the field, you have taught yourself to look at new problems differently and see if there is a past solution that might work.  You can also take a critical look at the work of the past and begin to figure out how to improve upon it.  Not to mention that the less mistakes you repeat from others the more cost-effective your experiments become!

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Gas Pump Counter Gauge. 1960s. Gift of the Veeder Root Company. 2004.110.01.

The Connecticut Historical Society is housed in the home of a man by the name of Curtis Veeder.  He was an inventor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of you might not realize it, but you use his invention nearly every day.  When you look at your car to see how many miles you have traveled, or how much gas you have put in at the pump…you can thank Curtis for inventing the cyclometer to measure your distance or amount (to learn more about Curtis you can check out this article).  Although these things are now done digitally, the foundation was laid by Curtis.  Just think of how long the invention of digital cyclometers would have taken if people would have ignored Curtis’s groundwork, and the groundwork of many others, and started from scratch?  The history of the field is relevant.

The same thing goes for those working in any field…not just those working in STEM fields.  If stock brokers didn’t know about the Crash of 29, perhaps they wouldn’t fully understand the risks associated with buying and selling on the margin.  If pharmacists didn’t look at the effects of herbs on individuals in early America, they might still be searching for pain relief.  Every field of study has a history, and the knowledge of that history can only bring about better understanding of the present state of that field.

And it isn’t just other fields who can learn from history….this post is not one-sided.  Those of us in the history field also have to open ourselves to the teachings of the STEM fields.  The more and more information is spread through digital sources, the more museum professionals must comprehend and be able to function within these sources.  It is no longer enough to have the historical papers of Oliver Wolcott Jr.  We must now scan them, house digital copies, make these copies available to the public (on site or on the internet), plus store both the digital files and the original documents for posterity.  If we don’t understand how technology works, how will we even begin to make sure that our scanned files do not degrade in less than 5 years.  We have to understand shifting technology and know when to switch our digital information.  We have to understand how to use things like digital collections software, and how to code our online instructions for HistoryCat.  

I spent the majority of my years in high school waiting until that glorious time when you could go to college and just take the classes you really wanted to take (news flash…even by graduate school you still have to take classes you don’t really want to!).  I had no idea that those subjects I was not so thrilled about (hello keyboarding!), would actually turn out to be quite useful.  Being able to type quickly has saved me large amounts of time when writing blog posts or even just cataloguing items with long descriptions.  Not to mention that, as much as I hate to admit it, my math teacher was right, I use that stuff every day!!  Being able to manage a budget for collection care is all math, being able to understand how the money gets there for a non-profit with endowments, gifts, interest, income off of interest…well, that’s math with some major finance and economics thrown in!

We can all learn from each other.  Focusing on STEM education doesn’t mean we push aside other fields…hey, even involvement with theatre in school now helps me speak in front of large groups of people without pause…it simply means that we use the knowledge of our fields in different ways.  Perhaps we have a few more exhibitions that focus on the history of these fields?  Our Through a Different Lens exhibition addresses the science and technology of photography, rather than just showing pretty pictures.  That is certainly a step in the direction of staying relevant.

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Fisherman with Nets and Boat on Pier, Stonington, Connecticut. 1968. Photographed by Rosalie Thorne.Gift of the Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation © The Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation. 2011.344.1038.

And maybe we don’t just encourage history teachers and other humanities teachers to bring in groups for programs, but create a program about the history of innovation in Connecticut?  All of these things come together to make both the humanities and STEM stronger together than either is apart.  To stay relevant in any field you need to embrace the things you can learn from every field.

The discussions about STEM have been going on for a little while now, and I’m sure they will continue into the future.  In fact, I recently learned from a colleague that there is even some debate about STEM turning into STEAM….a movement to add the Arts to the mix discussing how art and design fields often produce innovative individuals…but that is a discussion for another day.

So, as 2014 takes off on a running start, let us think about the ways we can all stay relevant and what the future may hold regardless of your field of interest.

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