Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

STEM Education 4: Do STEM Nerds Need to Learn Latin?

Okay, not Latin. But some arts subjects do enhance a STEM career
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In a global world, the STEM nerd needs cultural awareness/Japan Tourism Bureau

How should we educate STEM nerds? There are two prevailing viewpoints about the goal of undergraduate education in the United States. The first is to graduate students prepared for a successful and rewarding career. The second is to graduate students who are “well-rounded.”It seems to me that professors of French literature and lecturers in feminist studies must espouse the pursuit of well-roundedness in order to justify their employment. Most of their graduates will have difficulty finding employment in their major unless they teach high school or go on to get a PhD and land a professorship. And Latin? What is the difference between a large pizza and an undergraduate with a degree in Latin? A large pizza can feed a family of four.

My view is somewhere in the middle. Well-roundedness is appropriate in applied STEM curricula to the extent that it rounds out the skills necessary for success as a STEM professional.

That includes ethics, for example. Most universities rightly require some sort of ethics curriculum for the technically inclined. However, ethics is often taught in a relativistic framework of good professional and social practice, political correctness, and legal liability/responsibility. This has always seemed shallow and ineffective to me. Why do I need to conform to political correctness or legality if no one finds out what I do? Ethics can only be effectively taught within the firm foundation of absolutes of right and wrong that accompany faith in a law-giving God. Abandoning the solid foundation of Judeo-Christian ethical reasoning across academia has turned ethics education into a watery jell-O.

It also includes communication skills. Nerds are notorious for poor writing and speaking skills but competence in both is a career necessity and should be taught to undergraduates. When I was a graduate student, technical papers were written in English, German, and Russian. A graduate student therefore needed a foreign language. I was required to take two semesters of German as a graduate student and hated every minute of it. Today, all major technical publications are in English. The IEEE professional engineering and computer science societies, for example, require all their hundreds of technical publications be written in English. At over a thousand of their annual conferences, all talks presented orally must be be in English. Due to the dominance of English, many graduate STEM degrees in the United States have dropped the foreign language requirement. In other countries, a foreign language is still required. German and Russian graduate STEM nerds, for example, must today all learn English. Whether or not a foreign language is part of the curriculum, studies of modern culture can play an important role in the STEM nerd’s education. Today I have a number of friends in Japan—mostly professors in the STEM areas I have met at conferences and in professional organization meetings. I also have some friends in Germany where my mother’s brother, Ray, was kept captive as an American POW in World War II. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could always get right to the friendship part and skip the war?

For example, I learned a lot about Japanese business practices during my visit there in 1992 when Japan dominated the world in commercial technology. At the time, I was President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council that eventually metamorphosed into the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society.

At the time of my visit to Japan, fuzzy systems were the talk of the industry. The idea of fuzzy logic (incorporating imprecise ideas into AI) originated in the United States in 1965 in a single paper written by UC Berkeley professor Lotfi Zadeh. Twenty years later, the Japanese figured out how to reduce fuzzy logic to practice and were using it in the manufacture of washing machines, clothes dryers, rice cookers, automatic transmissions, and countless other technologies. It contributed to the Japanese dominance in technology during this period.

Before going to Japan I needed to learn key customs in Japanese business culture. For example, at the time, business cards were necessary for a formal introduction. There is a Japanese ceremony employed in their exchange. The junior party goes first. He holds his card with both hands at waist level in a half bow so the senior party can read it. The senior party accepts the card and examines it. It is proper to say something about the card, perhaps “So. You are the head tuna man at the Yokohama fish works.” Placing the card in your wallet and then in your back pocket is considered an insult. You are, in essence, mooning the card. After the senior party properly accepts the card of the junior one, the roles and actions are reversed, to complete the ceremonial “exchanging-of-the-cards.”

There is a method to the Japanese custom of bowing as well. The more junior you are, the deeper you bow. Those in senior positions give shallow, token bows. The most junior parties practically bump their heads on the floor. When seated after introductions, one good idea I learned is to place the cards in the same geometry as the positions of one’s tablemates. Remembering names is much easier that way.

I first experienced the card exchange ceremony when meeting Isao Idota, the Executive Director of the Japan Technology Transfer Association. Meeting him was important because he was in charge of a great deal of technical development in Japan. I arrived and waited in the waiting room, curious to see how it would all be staged. First, Idota’s lowest-ranking staff came in. They were all dressed in thousand-dollar suits and starched shirts. Most of them looked like they had never experienced a bad hair day. We went through the greeting ceremony, one at a time. Some of them did not speak English and their business cards were written entirely in Japanese. I smiled until my dimples cramped, letting them know I think they are the greatest guys in the world. They smiled back and bowed energetically. Finally, it was time for Idota. Because he is was the senior egg roll, I got my card ready, bowed slightly, and readied myself for the ceremony.

No way. Not this time. Idota came through the door with a brisk confident pace. His right hand was already outstretched for a handshake as he boomed enthusiastically, “Bob Marks! Good to meet you!” Obviously, Idota was much better practiced in American customs than I was in Japanese. I quickly pocketed my card, shook his hand, and sat down to a meaningless afternoon meeting of superficial chatter.

These and other experiences have taught me that STEM nerds in sales and leadership areas need cultural and people skills. I was taken to lunch in Tokyo by Toshio Fukuda from Nagoya University. Traditionally, at a restaurant’s entrance, guests remove their shoes and place them in a secure cubbyhole before entering the dining room. At the restaurant, I dutifully removed my shoes and was relieved to note that my socks (a) showed no holes and (b) matched. The hostess took my shoes, said something in Japanese, and bowed. She placed the shoes in the shoe cubby and tried to close and lock the door. As it happens, I wear a size 13EE. So the door would not close. The hostess began a high-pitched, animated monologue in Japanese as she bent the toes of my shoes and forced the door closed. Then she turned, started bowing toward me and kept talking. Toshio translated, “She is saying ‘I am so very sorry. Please forgive me. This is all my fault. I am stupid. I am so sorry.’” Toshio smiled and I chuckled. It really was not that big a deal for me but for her, it seemed like a huge embarrassment.

For lunch, we sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a low table. My heels hung uncomfortably over the back of the undersized slippers provided by the restaurant. As it happens, we had met for lunch on Pearl Harbor Day. He knew it and I knew it. To get rid of the elephant in the restaurant, so to speak, I asked him what he thought about Pearl Harbor and our two countries at war in World War II. Not even waiting to swallow his mouthful of food, Toshio waved his hands and immediately responded “You can’t blame me for any of that stuff. I wasn’t there.” I wonder what our lunch in the 1990s would have been without the atomic bomb dropped on Japan in 1945. The United States STEM nerds had beat the German and Japanese STEM nerds to the invention of the atomic bomb. And now, in the 1990s, Japan was beating us economically with development and application of fuzzy logic.1 Through these and other experiences, I am learning to be prepared for unexpected reactions.

Even within my field of electrical and computer engineering, there is continued conflict over curriculum. When I was a student, a knowledge of electric motors was universally considered mandatory for a degree. This is no longer the case. Power engineering was the next to go; it is not a required discipline in many electrical engineering curricula today.

Overall, decisions about curriculum are usually made in the wrong way. Foreign language faculty will lobby for the idea that any good engineer or computer scientist needs to know a foreign language. Great texts faculty argue that engineers and computer scientists need to have an understanding of the great literature of the world. Final decisions are often made politically, topdown, at administration meetings. This decision process is backwards. It should be bottom up. Engineer and computer science practitioners should decide what curricula well-nurtured STEM professionals need. Likewise, foreign language and great texts professionals should decide whether their majors should take calculus. Doing otherwise leads to degrees where the richness of a discipline is muddied by the imposition of required but irrelevant courses that displaces subjects of deeper curricular substance.


1 The Japanese bubble popped in 1991, leading to lessons learned and painful restructuring.

Robert J. Marks is the Director of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University.

See also: STEM Education 1. Pursuing Nerd Quality Over Nerd Quantity

Stem Education 2. Not Everyone is Lucky Enough to Be A Nerd

STEM EDUCATION 3. Killing People and Breaking Things Modern history suggests that military superiority driven by technology can be a key factor in deterring aggression and preventing mass fatalities

Also by Robert Marks: Study Shows Eating Raisins Causes Plantar Warts Sure. Because, if you torture a Big Data enough, it will confess to anything


Ai That Can Read Minds? Deconstructing AI hype