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Make room for STEM and liberal arts

As we zoomed up the Interstate 75 ramp in Gainesville, I turned to my then-8-year-old son and said, "If we're 130 miles from Tampa and I drive 65 miles per hour, how long will it take us to get home?"

He paused for a moment and then confidently replied, "Two hours."

Trust me when I tell you he wasn't guessing.

My oldest always displayed a knack for math. He starred on the Math Bowl team at age 10, scored among the nation's best on a math aptitude test when he was 15 and got in trouble at age 17 for solving equations without showing his work.

He solved them in his head.

But a funny thing happened on his way to math wizardry.

In 11th and 12th grade, he penned stories for tb-two*, the Times' high school publication.

He also won the school poetry slam as a senior.

Now that he's a freshman at Florida State, he intends to major in creative writing.

It's against this personal backdrop that I consider the rising debate about the need for our state university system to produce more science, technology, engineering and math or STEM majors.

Gov. Rick Scott recently chimed in about his concerns regarding the need for more STEM majors, and USF's Lakeland campus pushes to become the independent USF Polytechnic, arguing it will produce more STEM graduates.

On Monday, State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, spoke to the issue at a "Congress of Regional Leaders" event focusing on economic development. Weatherford questioned if the state is getting the economic development outcomes it needs given its annual $4-billion higher education investment.

"Whether it's a high-demand job that you're going to have on the outside when you get done or a low-demand job, it's a standard tuition rate and frankly it's the lowest in the country," Weatherford said.

"Nobody wants to talk about higher tuition in this day and age, but at the end of the day, we're going to have to start differentiating between colleges, between universities, between degrees. The standard, one-size fits all, particularly with technology the way it is today, is just not going to work."

On Tuesday, I followed up with Weatherford, who becomes House speaker in 2012. He said differentiating tuition — essentially a financial incentive for students going into STEM fields — is just one innovation the state should consider given that 30 to 35 percent of jobs are in STEM fields but only 16 to 17 percent of state graduates earn STEM degrees.

"I'm not saying that we forget about liberal arts and other areas, but I think that we need to make sure our universities are being receptive to the demands of the marketplace," Weatherford said.

But at what point do we promote STEM? Perhaps I erred in not showcasing certain careers to my son at a younger age, but steering him into a field now and watching him make a half-hearted effort would be a bigger error.

We're better served planting STEM seeds in our youth. Weatherford advocated for both, and spoke of incorporating 21st century technology in teaching as another approach.

Still, all this STEM talk creates some reservations.

Higher education is vital to economic development, and my son's opportunities for greater wealth may be heightened if he becomes an engineer.

But college is about more than a career. It's kids developing into men and women. It's learning about other cultures, debating differences and fulfilling curiosities.

We can't let the zeal for economic recovery blot out the idea of pursuing your passions. The two have to coexist, and we certainly can pair STEM with liberal arts pursuits.

For now, my son dreams of writing the next great American novel. I support that dream.

Where would we be if Shakespeare's parents made him become a blacksmith?

That's all I'm saying.

Make room for STEM and liberal arts 10/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 9:16am]
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