Opinion: In Defense of Navy’s Science and Engineering Emphasis

March 19, 2014 4:12 PM
Lt. Brittny Lambert talks to a midshipman about flight operations in the landing signal officer shack aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110). US Navy Photo
Lt. Brittny Lambert talks to a midshipman about flight operations in the landing signal officer shack aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110). US Navy Photo

According to a recent opinion piece in USNI News, Naval commissioning programs’ preference for officers with science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degrees is a misguided policy that will create an officer corps devoid of critical thinking skills.

However, the Navy’s position on STEM studies is justified considering the modern fleet’s job demands. Further, the concept that officers with technical backgrounds have no capacity for foreign affairs, language studies or naval strategy is false.

Unfortunately, the continuous debate surrounding this policy draws attention away from other more pressing issues, endangering the quality of our commissioning programs.

Upon commissioning, unrestricted line officers step into technical jobs that require technical skills. Given this reality, the Navy currently imposes a mandate that 65 percent of Naval Academy and ROTC graduates earn a STEM degree.

The debate over this metric rages on among students and faculty, and stereotypes of pocket-protector-wearing engineers and bookworm Shakespeare scholars are paraded out as evidence to support either side’s superiority.

Stepping aside from stereotypes and personal allegiances, the 65 percent STEM mandate exists as a reasonable benchmark in the governance of our diverse commissioning sources.

An unrestricted line junior officer’s job is almost exclusively technical—either the direct manipulation of machinery (pilots) or the management of highly skilled technicians (submariners).

An officer must be an effective communicator and devoted leader, but his or her job remains technical in nature. Therefore, the commissioning programs’ preference for technical undergraduates seems reasonable.

The Naval Academy and ROTC programs spend millions of taxpayer dollars to educate junior officers, and as good stewards of those funds they should make some effort to place technical people in technical jobs.

While the current guidance shows a clear preference for science and engineering programs, roughly one of every three ensigns joins the fleet with a humanities degree. A 65 percent STEM force will not lead to the elimination of humanities students—as some alarmists argue.

In 20 years the current crop of junior officers will have become unrecognizable by their undergraduate degrees. To think that history majors inevitably become better strategists than their engineering contemporaries discounts the vast professional growth that occurs during successive sea and shore tours.

Over the course of 20 years an officer likely will attend graduate school, work in a joint operations billet, serve at a foreign posting, and command at sea. Many—if not all—of these experiences trump the influence of undergraduate coursework on one’s professional career.

Regardless of major, the Navy recognizes that successful officers must be both technicians and communicators. Toward that end, both the Naval Academy and ROTC programs make commendable efforts to “cross-train” STEM and humanities students through mandatory core courses.

Every Naval Academy graduate receives a Bachelor’s of Science degree, regardless of major, because of the amount of technical courses required by the core curriculum. Conversely, every academy student is required to take a robust history and literature program. Language studies are also expanding in popularity at Annapolis. In fact, recent changes to scheduling policy allow STEM majors to complete language minors without drowning under the burden of their engineering course loads.

Policymakers and concerned academics must look beyond the squabble over the mandate’s finite percentage. Instead, they should focus their attention on two related issues endangering the health of our commissioning programs.

First, the core curriculum must continue to serve as a filter to screen out STEM students with inadequate communication skills or humanities students who lack the technical skills required for service as a naval officer.

Should the core curriculum transform from a filter into a pump (excuse the STEM jargon) our minimum educational standards for commissioning would be compromised. The consequences of commissioning intellectually inadequate officers would fall squarely on the shoulders of the sailors they lead, thus having dangerous ramifications for the entire fleet.

Second, a quality spread of students over all majors must be maintained. An overzealous preference for STEM studies must not be allowed to transform humanities majors into repositories for the least talented or motivated students.

Navy leadership must guard against a singular focus on STEM subjects, which could easily create a brain-drain from humanities fields into STEM majors. The intellectual diversity that we so highly value in our officer corps can be maintained only by commissioning the sharpest minds from the broadest spectrum of majors.

The argument over the STEM mandate’s finite percentage is likely to continue at its current level. That debate is an unfortunate waste of energy, however, because the 65 percent STEM requirement is a justifiable metric governing the broad array of ROTC programs and the Naval Academy.

Those truly concerned about the intellectual development of our officers-to-be should instead use their energy to ensure the core curriculum remains robust and uncompromised and that the right students are being funneled into the right majors, regardless of STEM-status.

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