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Credit: Emily Cheng

Is emphasizing everything the same as emphasizing nothing?

Penn’s choice of a STEAM approach to education — one that treats Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics equally — instead of a STEM approach has raised this question.

“We are emphasizing STEAM education. We are absolutely committed to integrating liberal arts and sciences with more technical education,” President Amy Gutmann said. “One of the reasons Penn is ranked so high internationally is that we make sure our students cultivate T-shaped intellects and skill sets which are deep in some things and broad at the top.”

This STEAM approach makes the School of Engineering and Applied Science unique, and is one of the University’s biggest selling points. As opposed to more technical schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology, Penn offers its students a more well-rounded, interdisciplinary education.

“What I really like about Penn is the diversity of people. You get that more at a school with many different strong suits than at a more technical school,” Engineering freshman Becky Abramowitz said. “I think it’s important to know other things and not just to be a one-dimensional person or a one-dimensional engineer, especially in terms of writing and knowing how to communicate.”

Penn’s STEAM approach, however, can also be seen as a liability. Engineers in 2012 earned an average starting salary of $69,234 with computer science graduates earning $80,118, compared to $63,273 among Wharton graduates and $52,061 among College graduates — indicating a strong market demand for engineers. Meanwhile, the Engineering School’s applicant pool has doubled over the past few admissions cycles, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said. STEAM opponents think Penn’s decision to not significantly expand enrollment or funding at the Engineering School despite this high demand is economically inefficient and inexpedient.

“I think emphasizing everything is emphasizing absolutely nothing. If you write a whole paper and write it in bold that doesn’t mean anything,” Engineering freshman Maddie Gelfand said. “There are some basics we just don’t have. We have a notoriously unimpressive math department. For computer science, there are hundreds of people in CIS110 and hundreds of people that want to take CIS120 but can’t because there’s a waiting list.”

This is not to say that Penn does not emphasize STEM fields at all.

Eight of the 10 fastest growing jobs are in STEM fields, the Washington Post reported in 2014. With a 17 percent growth rate, STEM jobs are predicted to grow at a rate that is 1.7 times higher than other jobs according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The 10 highest paying majors are in STEM fields, and STEM jobholders earn 11 percent higher wages than same degree holders in other jobs, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices wrote.

To address these trends, Penn recently increased funding for the Penn Center for Innovation to promote commercialization, Laurie Actman, PCI’s Chief Operating Officer, said. Penn is developing a PennovationWorks campus to promote entrepreneurship and is a leader in research and development, especially in terms of science — it has the second highest total research and development expenditures among Ivy League universities.

“Since 2006, we have added three new engineering buildings: the Weiss Tech House, that was information science, Skirkanich Hall, that was bioengineering, and then the Singh Center, which was nanotechnology,” Executive Director of the Office of the Executive Vice President Anthony Sorrentino said. “The profile at which the University has been growing has been in those areas.”

Some students, however, believe this is not enough.

Only 40 percent of Penn students take an introductory computer science course compared to rates as high as 90 percent at Stanford, 60 percent at Princeton and 50 percent at Harvard, primarily as a result of a lack of resource allocation towards computer science in terms of space and faculty. STEAM opponents argue this could be corrected by putting more of an emphasis on tech fields, which have growing demand, instead of equally weighting technology and the arts.

Others disagree. “My personal thoughts on STEAM are that it can be great if implemented properly,” Abramowitz said.

Time will tell whether Penn’s interdisciplinary approach will benefit its students in the long run or whether it is simply a vestige of an era in which generalization was more important than specialization.

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