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Liberal arts education is the key to a modern science career

By Jennifer Dahl, assistant professor of chemistry

Every spring, I meet with many prospective students and their families as they make crucial decisions about their choice of university. Many factors will shape this decision for the student. I most commonly address the quality of education, selection of a major, unique opportunities offered by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and the career outlook for our graduates. 

In the course of our discussions, the questions that I most frequently encounter are: 

"Isn't UWEC a liberal arts university? If I want to pursue a STEM major, shouldn't I do it at a school that is focused on technical skills?"

The answer to both of these questions is yes. But I also offer a follow-up response: The framework of a liberal arts education enhances the technical expertise gained from STEM courses, giving you the very best preparation for a career as a modern scientist. 

In today's workplace, a scientist isn't hidden away in a laboratory, performing solitary tasks that are too obscure to capture the interest of others. Some of the most pressing issues we face as a society must be tackled by teams of scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines and backgrounds. 

Take, for example, the energy crisis. What is required to develop alternative energy sources? Which methods of generating energy should we retain? How can we develop new technologies that are sustainable? How do we implement these new technologies into the lives of fellow citizens? 

Solving an issue of such enormous magnitude requires the best minds from chemistry, engineering, materials science, mathematics, computer science, biology and geology. Virtually every type of scientist is needed to fully address all of the issues surrounding global energy demands. As a matter of fact, I cannot think of any type of scientist that couldn't engage in solving this particular societal issue.

So, within our current example of solving the energy crisis, how does liberal arts education accelerate the pace of developing new technology?

In a word, it is communication. 

A scientist with a liberal arts background brings the gift of fluent dialogue to the table. Effective communication among scientists takes many forms: casual verbal expression among colleagues, concise written communication in technical reports and scientific publications, and the sharing of major breakthroughs at professional conferences. 

Aside from helping scientists work together, a liberal arts education enhances your ability to engage the public in your work. This is how you can build trust with local government officials, attract potential investors, and convince the typical U.S. consumer to adopt new technologies. 

The ability to express the value of your work to others, whether they are fellow scientists or fellow citizens, is the key to breathing life into the latest scientific advances. 

Without effective communication, new technologies never make it into the public consciousness. They die quietly in the research lab. The only outcome here is another missed opportunity to make your world a better place.