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Leveraging Liberal Arts in Science and Engineering

Leveraging Liberal Arts in Science and Engineering

Most Indian students attend college in the US to gain a solid technical education because, be it in pure sciences or hard engineering, the US is home to many of the world’s leading technical institutions. It’s unfortunate, however, that many of these same students end up dismissing the non-technical aspects of learning. This is especially concerning since the US education system is literally built on a foundation of liberal education; it is one of its strongest aspects.

In this article, I will offer a perspective of how I’ve benefitted from combining liberal arts and technical classes at MIT. To put my reflections in context, below is a definition of liberal education from the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them
to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge
of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a
specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social
responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills
such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated
ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

MIT is undoubtedly a tech school that has earned its reputation as one of the best. And that’s exactly why most new students, as well as outsiders, are surprised to learn that MIT is also ranked in the top 10 for humanities and social sciences or that all undergraduate students must take at least eight humanities/social science courses to qualify for graduation!

About a decade ago, MIT conducted a large-scale alumni survey asking for feedback. The results were surprising – the consensus was that, while MIT had provided a solid technical foundation for engineering work, it wasn’t honing enough of the other skills required for sustained success in any realm, be it professionally, personally or within the community. These skills included areas such as effective communication, critical analysis of social or ethical arguments and switching between modes of thinking. To address these concerns and prepare its graduates for an increasingly interdisciplinary world, MIT increased its focus on providing a well-rounded education.

While I am a computer science major, I am also focusing on anthropology, the study of humans and human behaviour and societies. And this has helped in the following ways.

  • Improved written communication: Perhaps the most tangible benefit of taking liberal arts classes is developing effective writing skills. Liberal arts classes usually assign multiple complex readings, which the student is required to assimilate, dissect and digest. This, in turn, results in a finer understanding of writing itself – Who is the piece written for? What style does it employ? Is it effective in its ideas and style? Regularly undergoing such analysis eventually translates to stronger communication skills. I have noticed a significant difference in my writing style over the past three years – thanks to courses such as Science Writing and New Media, Writing and Rhetoric, and Introduction to Anthropology.
  • More nuanced skills of persuasion: An engineering education itself provides a firm foundation for critical reasoning, but I have noticed that through liberal arts exposure, I’ve gained a better vocabulary for expressing my ideas and arguments, for wider audiences with varying levels of familiarity with technical concepts.
  • Deeper critical analysis skills: The most important skill I’ve gained through a multi-disciplinary approach is the ability to analyse and interpret problems from multiple perspectives. Often, the fundamental nature of seemingly distinct problems turns out to be the same when viewed from different angles. For example, modelling human behaviour in a certain context may require a physics-inspired computational approach.

A finer understanding of my writing style, a better connection with the audience and the ability to tailor my rhetoric to a particular demographic – these are the skills that I have gained through my liberal arts studies. And, I employ them in both my personal life and professional work – from discussing a technical concept with friends over dinner to speaking at a conference, I have benefitted in a multitude of ways from a better understanding of exposition and conversation.

Ayush Sharma is a guest blogger for The Red Pen and final year computer science student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

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