Cal Poly Humboldt? | Field Notes

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When and where I was a kid – in the 1950s in Britain – it was science or the arts. No middle ground, nothing nuanced in my education. If you were a “scientist” you were thinking about engineering or medicine for your future. If you were “arts” you ended up doing something else, usually more creative. I became a civil engineer: three years at the University of London, no electives, nothing except engineering. The limits of my education hit me when I saw a friend read Russia and the USSR: the big three. “Who are they?” I asked and he gave me a desperate look. (Hint: It wasn’t Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin.) The science / arts dichotomy I grew up in was later labeled as “left brain” and “right brain” although, frankly, it didn’t. There is no evidence that any of us use half of our brains more than the other.

Now Humboldt State University is turning to the left brain, so to speak, as it is on hold for a $ 458 million grant to become California’s third polytechnic, joining Cal Poly San Luis. Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona. Which basically means that it is STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Not that HSU is currently teeming with painters, sculptors, and other liberal arts visionaries. It currently has the highest rate of STEM students earning a PhD in the California State University system, and its percentage of STEM program students is just behind that of the other two polytechs. However, with enrollments steadily declining, HSU needs to do something different. The dire situation is reflected in its low bar admission rate of 92%, compared to Cal Poly Pomona and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s 45% and 25% respectively.

While the acronym STEM sums up the purpose of what will be taught, the label “polytechnic” emphasizes how it will be taught. The polytech approach emphasizes hands-on and experiential learning, “ensuring that students have the opportunity to apply what they learn, preparing new graduates for careers,” to quote the site HSU Web. To understand what STEM entails, it’s worth looking at the “S” in particular. Science as a whole is generally considered to embrace three disciplines: natural Sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology; formal science, including mathematics, statistics and logic; and social science – sociology, psychology, political science, economics, etc. STEM focuses on the first two, as can be seen in the technology, engineering, and math parts of the acronym. (Today, the social sciences are generally grouped together with the humanities and the arts, hence HASS, the counterpoint to STEM.)

So, in a way, for our local university, the move to an official polytechnic designation is a pretty natural development, with HSU already offering so many STEM-oriented courses. Its website lists a wide range of these programs, including marine science and fisheries, forest ecology, and renewable energy, in addition to programs geared towards the social sciences: psychology, anthropology, social work, nursing, and kinesiology. .

This is good news, not only for the local economy (HSU is the county’s largest employer), but also for California as a whole, balancing the locations of the other two polytechs, one in Los County. Angeles, the other on the border of Northern and Southern California. Having a polytechnic here “in the heart of the redwoods” (they’re somewhere here) should attract STEM-focused students from Santa Cruz to the north. Done well, it will also help alleviate the current gender imbalance, in which women, who make up nearly half of America’s workforce, hold just 24% of STEM jobs. Hopefully, this move will also improve the country’s dismal STEM education performance. Compared to the rest of the world, we rank 35th in mathematics and 25th in science out of 109 countries.

HSU is currently engaged in a “self-study” leading to the polytech designation, which will be presented to its board of directors in January 2022. With luck and diligence, in a few years HSU will have transformed into CPH: Cal Poly Humboldt. It has a nice ringtone.

Barry Evans (he / him, [email protected]) discovered Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin late in life.


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