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Making the Case for Both STEM and the Humanities
How primary sources provide multidisciplinary insight and information, and why it matters across the curriculum
By Courtney Suciu
A recent New York Times1 article about our cultural obsession with cleanliness and its impact on natural immunities (“Your Environment Is Cleaner. Your Immune System Has Never Been So Unprepared”) recently grabbed our attention.
The topic is an interesting one, but what most intrigued us was how researchers cited in the article tracked the rising popularity of potent household cleaners and antibacterial products alongside increasingly frequent reports of allergies and hay fever.
According to this report, a study conducted by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, comprised of scientists from Colombia University, examined primary source materials such as catalog and magazine ads for insight on “how we became so enamored of soap products.”
Observations by researchers included2:
The Sears Catalog in the early 1900s heavily advertised "ammonia, Borax, and laundry and toilet soap."
"During the early to mid-1900s, soap manufacturing in the United States increased by 44 percent," coinciding with "major improvements in water supply, refuse disposal and sewage systems."
The marketing trailed off in the 1960s and 1970s as antibiotics and vaccines were understood to be the answer to infectious agents, with less emphasis on "personal responsibility."
But then, starting in the late 1980s, the market for such hygiene products -- home and personal -- surged 81 percent.
This thrilled us because we’ve been thinking a lot about how primary sources (advertisements, historical records, government and organizational documents, brochures, newspapers and the like) are used to inform research in multidisciplinary subject areas such as public health.
In fact, this was the topic of a recent ACRL webinar, Across Curricula: Primary Sources and Humanities are Gaining STEAM hosted by Barbara Olson, ProQuest Product Marketing Manager. Olson explored how primary sources, which are indisputably of value to historians and other scholars in the humanities, also provide extraordinary insights and information to researchers working in STEM fields.
The way scientists from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology were able to use the Sears catalog and other historical marketing materials to inform their understanding of trends in modern medicine is just one example of how primary sources can bridge the gap between STEM and the humanities.
Why STEM and the humanities go together
In the ACRL webinar, Olson spoke about how studies in the humanities can promote critical thinking and other “soft” skills that are beneficial to students and professionals in STEM.
In this context, she referred to an article by Richard Lachman, associate professor at Ryerson University, titled “STEAM not STEM: Why Scientists Need Arts Training.”3
Lachman described himself as “a computer scientist who studies digital culture,” motivated by the question of how universities can “train our scientists, technologists and engineers to engage with society…rather than perform as cogs in the engine of economic development.”
The answer, according to Lachman, might be the arts and humanities.
“Technology,” he pointed out, “raises moral questions” – which is at the heart of studies in art, literature, history and philosophy, areas focused on what it means to be human.
When it comes to the influence of software algorithms, genetic engineering and climate change, Lachman argued, “These are not technological issues. They contain technological issues but they are not fundamentally technological issues. They are ethical ones.”
Of course, it’s one thing to make the case that scientists need to be cognizant of the social and ethical context of their work – it’s another thing to teach people how to think about the social and ethical implications of developments in science and technology.
But for Lachman, the arts and humanities offer STEM students and researchers opportunities to consider “more abstract ideas of rights, values and meaning” instead of only thinking in terms of “dosage or measurement.”
For example, Lachman wrote about how “the fields of medical ethics and bioethics as well as concepts such as informed consent” have emerged out of studies of “crises in medical research, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.”
In this particular case, primary sources related to the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study, including government documents, personal testimonies and correspondence and newspaper coverage, illuminate how and why such a study was conducted, as well as the way it exploited people based on race and class, and the needless harm suffered as a result.
Because of these insights “medical professionals now engage with complex questions of inclusion, representation and agency,” he noted.
For further research
To follow up the ACRL webinar, we explored additional arguments for humanities education from researchers, educators and other experts in STEM fields. Download the article to learn more about how subjects like literature, history and social sciences can benefit students who will be seeking careers in science and technology.
Additionally, we published an article (download now) with various examples of primary sources and the ways they can be used in research and learning across topics to bridge studies in STEM and the humanities.
- (2019, Mar 12). Your Environment is Cleaner. Your Immune System Has Never Been So Unprepared. The New York Times. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.
- Richtel, M. (2019, Mar 12). The Immune Fix. The New York Times. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.
- Lachman, Richard. (2018, Jan 17). “STEAM not STEM: Why Scientists Need Arts Training.” The Conversation.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu