Monday, January 21, 2019

Fascinating piece on STEM studies at the University of Washington

I thought this long article in the Seattle Times about the increase in STEM majors at the University of Washington was really interesting, if a bit odd in places. Here are the core facts: 
...The number of history majors nationwide is down about 45 percent from its peak in 2007, and the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s, according to research by Benjamin Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University who has been documenting the trends. 
Since 2008, on the UW’s Seattle campus, the number of students studying in STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) has increased 37 percent. Among all three campuses, it’s up 50 percent. On the main campus, non-STEM programs have declined by 13 percent. 
At UW Seattle, there are now almost as many students studying in STEM programs as in non-STEM programs. That’s a dramatic flip: Just 10 years ago, there were twice as many students in non-STEM majors as there were in STEM majors....
Because humanities classes cost less (professors are less costly, no startup packages for new laboratories, etc) and some unique budgeting rules in Washington, this shift is costing the universities money.
...It’s not true, Cherniavsky says, that there’s no job market for graduates who can write, do critical analysis or have the ability to view knowledge from diverse ethnic and cultural perspectives — a concept known as multicultural literacy. “It’s not that the corporate world has no use for these skills,” she said. Instead, companies tend not to pay much for the jobs that require them, she said.... 
...Both Microsoft and Amazon offer mentorships exclusively for College of Arts & Sciences majors. “We are using these programs not as recruitment tools, but as myth-busting,” said Matt Erickson, manager of college-to-career initiatives in the College of Arts & Sciences. 
Erickson said the UW is sometimes guilty of reinforcing the idea that only STEM degrees lead to good jobs in Seattle. But UW humanities majors have found jobs at every big tech firm in Seattle — including majors in history, English, art history, sociology, German, French and linguistics. They’ve found roles in human resources, community engagement, customer outreach and marketing, he said.
Microsoft President Brad Smith has also written about the need for tech companies to hire liberal-arts majors, particularly in artificial intelligence. “As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important,” Smith wrote in an introduction to the book “The Future Computed.”
Brad Smith is well-known as a proponent of tech-related immigration, i.e. H1b visas. I am grimly amused that Mr. Smith is both a big fan of saying that there is a shortage of STEM workers in the United States, and that we don't have enough* liberal arts majors as well.

Overall, I don't think it's a surprise at all that people are piling into computer-oriented fields. What is the field that seems to have stable, well-paying jobs that lead to seeming riches? It seems like it's computer-related stuff more so than any other field.

*Okay, he really doesn't say that. 


  1. Well, if you want cheap labor, you need to make sure there a lot of it with too much sunk cost to readily leave the labor market (or at least your labor market). It's just a new stanza, not a new song (but I assume you already knew this).

    The part about needing the skills of liberal arts majors but being unwilling to pay for them also seems sadly familiar. At some point, playing games with loaded dice gets tiresome. (This comes to mind - not in the "moral equivalence" sense but in the sense of consequences to frustration, maybe more like "surplus consciousness".)

  2. Everyone becoming coders at bootcamps means we'll have a lot of coders who don't understand the first thing about the fundamentals of computers or computer science. The equivalent of the tech that's hired to pour columns and run tlcs. Automation has taken those jobs, and will take many (not all!) coding jobs too......

    When automated coding and software self-repair arrives, these guys get the boot first. There are already examples