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English, stem, and salmon fishing in the Yemen.

In the United States, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics 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. In 2006, the National Academies expressed concern about the declining state of STEM education in the United States. The Department of Education, NASA, NSF, and other federal agencies expressed concern. In 2012, President Obama asked for an additional billion dollars to beef up STEM instruction via a Master Teachers Corps. States, corporations, and philanthropists have offered cash and resources.

But there is a down side to any good thing. Time, money, and resources are finite. So, something's gotta give. The likely casualty is the humanities, particularly communication skills. Engineers and scientists need to communicate, and the lack of adequate skills can be a career-stopper. Professors of humanities have been sounding the alarm. In an opinion article published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Aug. 29, 2012, Thomas Peyser, professor of English at Randolph-Macon College, wrote, " ... we can be confident that the abandonment of instruction in grammar is robbing us not just of future writers but of future scientists, physicians, and engineers as well."

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

After witnessing our engineering students' declining ability to communicate effectively, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Last fall, I offered to seniors and graduate students an elective course in effective technical writing. My colleagues in the English department supported the endeavor, and some volunteered to deliver guest lectures. There are no exams, only weekly reading and writing assignments.

I challenge the students to improve upon the writings of novelists and newspaper columnists as well as well-written technical papers. I also ask the pupils to write original essays on technical and nontechnical 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 U-week semester, the experiment has been a success. The course is now part of the permanent curriculum.

Because of its nature and teaching resources, the course is limited to a small percentage (about 1.5 percent] of the engineering students in one university. I feel like a fish swimming against the current. In Paul Torday's 2007 novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 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; radicals fight the plan, and the entire absurd and unachievable project is an upstream journey of faith to make the impossible possible.

Exacerbating my academic quest are three unsettling developments. First, several universities have recently attempted to implement a business model to replace the traditional academic model.

Second, tuition's inflation far exceeds general inflation.

Third, recent visions of the governors of Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin foretell a future of public higher education in which a teacher's worth is measured by how much tuition income the teacher generates.

In this 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 shouldn't diminish the humanities either. Students can learn a great deal during their formative years, and we shouldn't miss the opportunity to broadly educate them.

MOHAMED GAD-EL-HAK is the Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
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Title Annotation:COMMENT; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
Author:Gad-El-Hak, Mohamed
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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