Am I really going to need this when I grow up?

Grow UpFor some of you, the first day of school has already arrived, while others are going back in the next week or two. As you get back into the routine of waking up early, going to class, and (ugh!) homework, you may be thinking about the meaning and importance of everything you’re doing.

When you grow up, will you ever need to figure out how much force is needed to push a car up a hill if the coefficient of friction is 0.8? Will you need to know the 12 cranial nerves and what they do, or how to titrate an unknown acid, or how to use calculus to find the volume of a solid object?


Maybe not.

I use a lot more STEM skills in my job than I ever expected to as a student, but I’m also a scientist for a living. Even still, I would never consider doing many things I learned as a student by hand.

Doing math the old-school way

Doing math the old-school way

If I need to calculate an integral, I can do it on a computer. If I need to check an anatomy concept, I can look it up in a book, and if I want to move a car up a hill, I generally either step on the gas if the car is running, or call a tow truck if it’s not (right? You know what I’m saying here!). If I needed to titrate an unknown acid, I suppose I would have to do that by hand, but honestly, how often does one come across unknown acids?

Doing math the new-school way

Doing math the new-school way

I know if you’re a student, you totally feel me on that, but let’s take a step back and look at the overall principal instead.

Part of the importance of school work is to make sure you understand the underlying big concepts. You don’t necessarily need to do the math or the science every time, but once you have done the work yourself once or twice, there’s a lot better chance that you comprehend the basic theory behind the concept.

That way, when we know it’s easier to push something up a slippery hill than a rough hill, and that a cube has a bigger volume than a sphere of the same width, and that adding a base to a solid makes it more neutral, we can explain at least a little bit of the ‘why’ that goes along with the answer.

In STEM, there’s even a little bit more to school and learning than just the big concepts.

Part of school is learning HOW to learn.

Chances are, you’ll go into your first job (and second job, and third job, and so on), and you’ll need to learn a lot of things they never taught you in school. If you’re a student, trust me on this. If you’re a professional, I know you’re nodding your head in agreement.

For instance, if you move to Detroit and work for one of the big 3 automakers (that’s GM, Ford or Fiat-Chrysler for you out-of-towners), you might start out working on transmissions. You’ll need to learn about gear ratios, material properties of metal, linkages, and how to assemble all the parts. No college degree program will teach you all the intricacies of the job without you getting some hands-on experience. But don’t worry – if you have a STEM degree, you’re used to working hard, studying, and using your analytical thinking skills to solve problems.

If you work really hard, and become a walking encyclopedia of transmissions, you might get a promotion to managing a team that does exhaust design. In exhausts, there are a million new things to learn. You need to understand the chemistry of volatile gases coming out of the engine, how they combust, and how the exhaust system removes the chemicals so the car isn’t polluting the air. Plus, another function of exhausts is to quiet the sound of the engine, so you’ll need to learn some basic acoustic concepts as well. By now, you’re probably also doing a little bit of work of planning the production in a remote factory, and trying to optimize the costs as well. And you’re managing a team as well. Good thing you did lots of team work in your STEM education!

Go you - lead that team!

Go you – lead that team!

Luckily, if you have a STEM degree, you’ll have a basic understanding of many of the foundational principals you’ll need to use in the job, and by now, you have YEARS of experience at quickly learning new material. Your STEM background makes you pretty much the best employee ever (but we knew that would happen anyway, right?!?).

Do you see where I’m going with this?

The details of all the work you’re doing may be tedious, and we each have an area (or two) that we find to be even more tedious or more challenging than the rest of the curriculum. But, all that hard work does have a purpose.

Doing all that work in detail ensures you understand the fundamentals of “why”, and it teaches you how to learn. So, grab a water or a coffee, sit down at your desk, and get to work. Do those integrals. Memorize your flash cards, and look forward to those lab experiments. Read your textbooks, and ask lots of questions. Put your heart and soul into learning the fundamentals, and learning how to learn, and you’ll be giving yourself the best possible foundation for a successful career.

Have a great school year!


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