STEM vs. humanities majors: a closer look into their differences

STEM vs. humanities majors: a closer look into their differences

Photo Credits: RABIDA / AGGIE

A look inside the minds of Davis’s diverse academic community

UC Davis may be generally regarded as a STEM-focused school, but this view ignores the university’s considerably sized humanities departments. The perceived dominance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics on campus leads to interesting interactions between students of different majors — from the ways students form communities within their majors or view research opportunities to how much time they spend in class on a given week.

A number of students from a wide variety of majors spoke to The California Aggie. From these interviews, it appears that the sheer population size of the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Engineering makes it easier for new students to find classes and resources and to form communities as early as freshman year. 

Alexander Dillabaugh, a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior (NPB) and Spanish double major, described the differences he has observed between his two majors in terms of advising. 

“I usually see my Spanish advisor more often,” Dillabaugh said. “I feel like there’s so many NPB majors that I […] just ask people and use my friends as my advisors, or people older than me, but there’s not as many Spanish majors, so I go to [the advisors] for advice more.”

NPB and other popular STEM majors on campus such as biology and animal science, have well-developed resource programs that host events, such as major-specific meet-and-greets during Welcome Week — introductory events that are seemingly lacking for humanities students. 

Some STEM majors may also choose to get involved with mentorship programs wherein first-year students can ask questions and get advice from older students. Taylor Silva, a third-year NPB and English double major, is part of Mentor Collective — as part of the program, Silva helps one or two first-year students who are also science majors with their transition to college. 

These mentorships programs — such as BioLaunch Mentor Collective which, according to the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences website, “matches new and returning students for academic and social support” — are especially prevalent in the College of Biological Sciences.

Although the humanities departments are usually smaller in size and lack some of the university-sponsored programs that STEM majors have, humanities students, including Silva, said they had better luck forming relationships with their professors because it is easier to get one-on-one time with them.

This seems to be an experience shared by students who are studying both humanities and STEM curriculum — Dillabaugh also said he was more likely to go to office hours for his humanities courses because they felt more personal. 

“In my Spanish language or history classes, I always go to office hours because that’s the most helpful,” Dillabaugh said. “[In STEM classes], there’s more people, they just go through the material again. It’s not one-on-one help.”

Another misconception among students is that humanities majors might not have as much access to professors given that they may not work in labs and on trials with them. According to many students, however, humanities professors are just as eager to make connections with their students.

Along a similar vein, another difference relates to students’ opinions of the importance of STEM versus humanities research.

“It’s more of a stigma that STEM research is more important,” Dillabaugh said, adding that even though Spanish is his other major, he forgets that Spanish professors are also doing research.

As a research university, most every professor at UC Davis is involved in some kind of research. In general, more STEM students are involved with their professors’ research than humanities majors. And, because of this, humanities research may be overlooked.

“[Working in a lab] definitely would have been my answer [to what research is] in high school, but after being at Davis, it’s changed,” said Lauren Christie, a second-year human development major. 

Since coming to Davis, Christie sees research in a broader sense that includes data input and visualisation, the basis of much of the research being done in the humanities fields. Additionally, fourth-year communication major Julia Sabey said that questionnaires, surveys and online polls come to mind when she thinks of research, given that that is the type of research communication majors are generally exposed to in their classes. 

A majority of STEM majors, however, said they relate labs and hard sciences, first and foremost, to research. Hannah O’Toole, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major, said that her personal experience of working in a research lab shapes her view of research — “I think of experimental design and a lot of chemistry because that’s the kind of research I do,” O’Toole said.

STEM majors, on average, spend more time in class, with an average of about 20 hours of class a week. Humanities majors mostly responded that they spent 10 to 15 hours in class per week.

 First-year psychology and English double major Alik Sultan said he spends “around 10 hours” in class “and probably less than five” doing homework in an average week. Similarly, Sabey reported that she spends three hours a day in class on average and spends about nine to 10 hours doing homework while O’Toole said she spends 22 hours in class a week and around 25 to 30 hours a week on homework.

Despite inherent differences, studying both STEM and humanities curriculum can be mutually beneficial. For example, Dillabaugh does volunteer work with Clinica Tepati, a student-run clinic that serves the Latino and Hispanic communities in Sacramento.

“Most of the people there are STEM majors […] but it’s a great way for me to practice my Spanish,” he said. “It’s a great way for me to connect Spanish and [NPB].” 

Written by: Katherine DeBenedetti — features@theaggie.org