Oberlin Blogs

What It's Like Taking STEM Classes as a Politics Major

November 30, 2022

Phoebe McChesney ’25

To be honest, I’m not really a STEM person. I have known this for a while, probably since first grade addition and subtraction. I was being taught that 2 + 2 = 4, but had no idea why. Where do numbers come from? Why do they have values? Why do we do things with them?

In third grade, I only half learned to tell time. The other half of that learning slipped past me as I struggled to name three ways to describe major increments. I eventually got there, but not without what seemed to me Herculean effort. In fourth grade, I spent months learning the steps to long division.

Similarly, with science experiments and science fairs, I’d keep asking questions in confusion, likely to the irritation of my teachers and parents. “It just is that way,” they’d finally say, exasperated. “I don’t know.”

In high school, faced with balancing equations, calculating molarities, understanding standard deviation, and practicing the basics to programming in JavaScript, I had even more questions. Why do these patterns exist? How do they change? How can I apply them to various situations? 

So, I faced my first Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSMA) classes in college with more than a twinge of apprehension. Turns out, the professors I have had are quite willing to break things down, step by step. For problem sets, worksheets, tests, and labs, I feel like I have what I need to prepare and to understand the material. Instructions and lectures are clear and concise. Professors and lecturers are open to questions, are understanding, compassionate, and welcome feedback.

I'm also learning things I never knew I would. From hands-on experience about the anatomy of a rat to picking apart the body of a grasshopper, I am unexpectedly surprised by weirdly specific facts I can now share with people (for instance, female rats possess uterine horns to accomodate many offspring at one time) and things I can now do, or at least attempt to learn (like using Microsoft Excel). The nature of the work done in these classes is also a useful break from the many close readings I do for my humanities and social science courses.

As for my many questions about why and how, I usually get ample explanation before I can even ask. The NSMA courses I have taken thus far do more than scratch the surface and leave it at that. They dive into the detail, all steps are shown and carefully explained. No blank spaces, no unnecessary abstraction. My STEM apprehension has been greatly eased. Younger me is currently breathing a sigh of relief.

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