Panic over U.S. students' lower position in global science and math rankings has fueled many important public and private programs to reverse that trend and groom the next generation of STEM professionals. While this investment should make the U.S. more competitive, many educators, including Valerie Barr, chair of the Computer Science Department at Union College, Schenectady, NY, believe there's a danger of overcompensation.
Responding to Florida Governor Rick Scott's assertion in October 2011 that tax dollars should be spent on STEM fields not the humanities, she weighed in on the Computers Science Teachers Association blog:
"We want to help students develop the scientific, computational, and engineering knowledge … to become the problem solvers of tomorrow ... But what makes someone decide that a problem exists? What has motivated the explosion of work in visualization, which every day empowers deeper understanding of the vast amounts of data that can now be processed by computers? We need the humanities for these leaps."
Chemical engineer Rich Byrnes couldn't agree more. In fact, his lifelong mastery of both left-brain (logical, analytical, rational, and quantitative) and right-brain (creative, integrative, artistic, and emotional) pursuits makes the case for public and personal investment in all types of thinkers and thinking.
Boil’s Law comic strip.
Byrnes, creator of "Boil's Law," a comic strip series now in its second year on the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' blog, ChEnected, never stopped to think he couldn't have it all. All for him is combining art and a career that began after his graduation in 1983 from Manhattan College, New York, NY, with service in the Navy as a reactor controls officer on a nuclear submarine off the coast of Scotland. He next joined the DuPont Company, where he held management roles in just about every department of the industrial service giant. Now, he works as director of engineering for King Industries, a specialty chemical, coatings, and lubricant additives company in Norwalk, CT.
One could say Byrnes' juggling of work and artistic endeavors, which in addition to "Boil's Law" has also included works on papers used in Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) fundraising, and yielded personal fulfillment and professional success. But the engineer-artist would more likely describe his path as the natural expression of who he is. Here he talks about his recipe for happiness, which, like the comic he writes for young engineers, offers many insights for those just starting out.
When did you start making art?
Growing up as one of seven children, we didn't have a lot of means so I used to ask my parents if I could illustrate our books that didn't have pictures and draw on the cardboard boxes being thrown away. Just give me a pencil and a piece of cardboard and there I was doing something.
Did you think about being an artist?
One of my teachers at Lehman High School in the Bronx told me going on to study engineering was a big mistake and I should consider art school instead. I knew that either way I'd have a yearning for that other part to be fulfilled. But I also knew there were a lot of starving artists and I'd never met a starving chemical engineer! Plus knowing I didn't have to earn income from art meant I could do what I wanted with it.
Engineering is obviously a left-brain pursuit; art, a right brain. Is it possible one part of your brain does both?
I think so. Common to my engineering and artistic endeavors is the ability to see and work with details. When I was young and my kindergarten teacher asked us to draw a tree she drew two parallel lines with a circle on top. I said "That's not how it looks," then added the natural details. As I grew older, I went on to understand not only how a tree looked but also how it grew and fed itself. Similarly I can look at a piece of equipment and visualize how the molecules move, the vapors travel and the chemicals separate inside it. My visual skills have significantly advanced my ability to troubleshoot.
So does your creativity make you a better engineer?
Yes. We engineers can get caught up in linear thinking when, say, negotiating salary and benefits, which can be a tug-of-war between management and workers. But working three-dimensionally, you are open to more ideas, and can, for example, consider 'What's in everyone's interest?' The business wants competitive products for the customer, increased sales and revenues; labor wants fair wages and benefits. How about extending performance incentives to the worker level so when the business succeeds everybody benefits? This type of collaborative problem solving entails the right- and left-brain working together.
Do you think your drive for artistic self-expression makes you more effective in business?
Absolutely. When I work on "Boil's Law," I have to get my message across in a few frames, with humor and illustration. Working creatively makes you a better communicator, and that's enormously valuable as new ideas can elicit rejection. When engineers in my department say "No one appreciates my ideas," I say: "We need to do a better job selling them."
So being creative can be a means to an end?
Do the things you enjoy without worrying whether you are any good. I get up in the morning and go to work in support of my family and in the pursuit of science. But I also let myself enjoy my art. It brings fulfillment and satisfaction, which ironically enhances the practical skills that make me a better engineer.
Marion Hart is an independent writer.
Working creatively makes you a better communicator, and that's enormously valuable as new ideas can elicit rejection.
Rich Byrnes, chemical engineer and creator of the "Boil's Law" comic strip
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