Students who excel at both technical and non-technical

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Discus: Parents Forum: 2004 Archive - Part 2: Students who excel at both technical and non-technical
By Emptynester (Emptynester) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 02:19 pm: Edit

"Students who can excel at both technical and non-technical disciplines are rare."

quoted from the MIT discussion. I am not sure how rare these students are but it seems a whole lot of their parents are on this board and I bet a whole lot of these young people are at MIT. Beyond that discussion, what do parents think about education and ultimately college choices for these students. At what age should the child who is both mathematically and verbally blessed (add into the mix extremely independent) be allowed to choose math over poetry or vice versa? What about major athletic talents and artists of all sorts, who also have ability to excel in technical or nontechnical areas-- if they had any interest? Age 10, 14, 16, 18? What should the parent's role be here?

By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 02:34 pm: Edit

I'm "old-school". I think that the optimum goal is for any bright kid to experience a broad based curriculum including math, sciences, humanities, and social sciences at least through two years of college. So age 20 would be about the earliest I would like to see a student close the book on one of those broad areas.

We had this exact discussion this summer. My daughter is a "math/science" kid. She was initially considering a possible Chemistry major. However, the prereqs for that essentially meant that she would have to take Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, and two labs during both semesters freshman year. This schedule would only permit ONE course in the Humanities and Social Sciences per semester -- a schedule that seemed entirely too lopsided. Instead, she's keeping open the possibility of a Physics major by taking Math and Physics each semester, leaving open two Humanities and Social Sciences slots per semester.

By Rhonda63 (Rhonda63) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 02:42 pm: Edit

I think it depends on the child.

By Jenniferpa (Jenniferpa) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 02:52 pm: Edit

I have a child who is mathematically and verbally gifted, and who is also very musical. The independence goes without saying. I've always said her problem was that there were too many good fairies present at her birth, which meant that she's never been forced to optimize her talent. The danger is, of course, that you end up a "jack of all trades, master of none". I would have preferred her to get a straightforward liberal arts degree, but her choice was sound recording, which at least has the merit of combining two of the three strengths.

By Pafather (Pafather) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 03:20 pm: Edit

My daughter was recently reading the autobiography of Frank Capra (film director of "It's a Wonderful Life", "It Happened One Night", etc.). We thought it was very interesting that Mr. Capra had to work full-time while attending CalTech (which was then called the Throop Polytechnic Institute) as an undergraduate and he still graduated first in his class. He obviously did not singularly dedicate himself to film at a young age, and yet was still successful in his non-technical career.

By Massdad (Massdad) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 03:55 pm: Edit

I think the original quote is faulty. I know of many kids who are strong in both science and the arts. And, there's a well known connection between music and physics/math. Think of both math/physics and music as being nonverbal languages.

When to specialize? Hopefuly never. Sad truth is, though, that our society values a science/technical/mathematics background more than an art/humanities/verbal background.

By Cheers (Cheers) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 04:03 pm: Edit

Directing film is non-technical? I've always imagined film had heaps of technical aspects. Architecture too, blends the technical with the non-technical.

By Emptynester (Emptynester) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 04:11 pm: Edit

"Sad truth is, though, that our society values a science/technical/mathematics background more than an art/humanities/verbal background."

agreed! And do some young people tend to be pushed in that direction? And do some specialize too early not due to a real passion but because a particular area of study provides more outside validation and gold stars?

Does it really matter which direction they go?

{The danger is, of course, that you end up a "jack of all trades, master of none".}
This seems like a pretty valid concern to me. Or course I do know a few women and men who really exemplify the renaissance man idea.. There is a little bit of that discussion on the MIT thread about working across disciplines.

By Jenniferpa (Jenniferpa) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 04:53 pm: Edit

It would be wonderful if one could be a true renaissance man or woman. Unfortunately, the body of human knowledge now is such that unless one chooses to specialize at some point, one will never be more than mediocre, although I think one can specialize in more than one area.. Mind you, in same way that I wouldn't be comfortable with my child choosing a life partner at 18, I would much rather specialization was left until she was older. What I want is, however, irrelevant (see "highly independent").

By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 05:05 pm: Edit

>> {The danger is, of course, that you end up a "jack of all trades, master of none".}

There is a school of thought that being a "jack of all trades" (or at least having the mental ability to adapt) is more important today than ever before due to the rapid pace of change in today's world.

For example, when I graduated from college, the first personal computer had not not yet hit the market and most of the science curriculum is as obsolete today as the study of leeches in medicine.

It seems to me that the number one skill any college student can learn is the ability to examine complex issues and visualize productive solutions -- a skill that is applicable without regard to to the specific issue.

By Marite (Marite) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 05:57 pm: Edit

>>Students who can excel at both technical and non-technical disciplines are rare." >>

I would modify this to "excel equally." Those who excel equally are rare. The Study of Exceptionally Talented students (SET) of CTY found that while those who score high on the math portion of the SAT also tend to score high on the verbal part, the reverse is not necessarily true. Still, there is a gap between the math and the verbal scores.
This was the case with our S. It was always clear that my S loved math and science. We were a bit surprised by his high SAT V score in 7th grade. But while that score reflected his ability--as later confirmed by school work and 10th grade SAT scores--, it did not reflect his interest in language arts and social studies.

>>At what age should the child who is both mathematically and verbally blessed (add into the mix extremely independent) be allowed to choose math over poetry or vice versa? Age 10, 14, 16, 18? What should the parent's role be here? >>

As I've described him before, my S is seriously lopsided. It was clear since kindergarten that he loved math and that our job was to feed his passion for math (actually doing math problems over meals made food go down more easily) while also trying to make sure that he did not neglect language arts and social studies. He acquired literacy through reading a lot of math and science works, as well as science and fantasy fiction. At age 10, he was reading Flatland (the Victorian social commentary sailed over his head). He may change his mind in college, but I doubt that he will move far away from math and science.
It is very different from kids who do well in certain subjects while in high school and thus imagine that these should form the basis of their future careers. Often, they have reached their ceiling in these fields and actually struggle while in college. I had a roommate who had done well in chemistry in high school and could not understand why she was not doing well as a chemistry major in college. It really wrecked her experience because she had no alternative image of herself.

By Soozievt (Soozievt) on Monday, August 30, 2004 - 11:33 pm: Edit

I have two kids who have approached things a bit differently from each other but I believe both paths have been right for each child and neither path is the "right" way.

The older one excels at many things academically, and also outside the classroom. While she is particularly very strong at math/science, she does equally as well with the nontechnical subjects and enjoys those as much. For her, it is not either/or but is strong in both these areas. In terms of interests outside academics, she has diverse passions. Often a kid is either into sports OR the arts but she loves both. She is just a well rounded person overall and has diverse interests, but also strengths. So, I do not agree that someone rarely would be strong in both those areas as this one is and I doubt she is rare. In fact, she wrote a college essay that was entitled "Twenty-first Century Renaissance Woman" which aptly describes herself....when it comes to academics and ways of thinking, as well as EC endeavors. She even got into her intended major of architecture which is also quite an integrated subject matter. She is not a "specialist" at this point in her life. I think she likely will wait til grad school for that (as far as the academic piece) and really wants a liberal arts education because she likes so many things. She never specialized in just one of her EC passions either (which made for a very busy life) because she could not see herself giving up one of her "life long loves". So, the phrase "jack of all trades but master of none" could possibly be applicable, I am not sure it totally fits. That is because while it is true she did not achieve on a national level or reach the pinnacle in one of her endeavors (which would require specializing in one area year round exclusively and giving up other interest, which she was not willing to do), but she did excel at each activity on a state level, and same with academic subjects across the board, even if one might think of her as this math/science award type person. So, her path has been diverse and I would not change a thing because this has been her own path she has chosen and it works. She will undoubtedly focus on a career type choice within a few years, but that will happen naturally and she is already moving toward figuring out those choices in academics. As far as outside interests, for now, she hopes to keep up with her diverse activities.

Now, my second child IS a specialist, even though she truly has excelled in diverse areas. She has chosen to give up some. As far as academics ,she has always been accelerated quite a bit in math and scores highly but does not care about math! Most think of her as this very strong person in all things verbal. That surely is what we think of when we think of her but not cause she is weak at any subject but only cause that area seems to stand out even more than the others. As far as EC endeavors, she always was very well rounded like her sister growing up, be it athletics or performing arts. But it was clear from preschool onward, that performing arts was her passion and strength. As that grew more intense and the committments became larger and larger, she gave up all her sports and has specialized in all her performing arts endeavors. She has been focused since a mere tot on going into musical theater. She has trained in all aspects of it and has much experience in her intended field. She has known what she has wanted to major in in college for years, even where she wanted to go! So, her route is quite specialized and she knows what she is going into, because it is an area she has already experienced a great deal. Her college route is quite different than the first child and she will be going for a professional type training in college, a BFA in musical theater. We know she could do anything considering being a top student in academics, but her passion is unwavering and her course is set. So, I guess she no longer is a jack of all trades and has opted for a master of one. That, even though she is capable of the jack of all trades stuff. I don't find her route any more positive than the older one's more diverse path, but the point is that this path was HER choice and worked for her.

Therefore, I could never answer the original question posed about the right age to specialize or what the parent role was in this. I think the right age is when it fits each child's situation. Some kids are "lopsided" and/or have a singular intense passion and some like many things and can even excel at many things and that is ok too. As you can see, I have one of each and I cannot even imagine which has taken the better route. I think each took the one that fit her interests. Our role is to encourage our kids and support the choices they are making.

One kid just turned 18 and has direction, though I could not guarantee just what she will be when she "grows up". The other child, could have told you what she'd be when she grew up back when she was four years old and the answer is still the same today and she is not yet 16 and is applying for college for that very field. Anyone who knows her is not in the least surprised when hearing what she is shooting for.


By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 12:26 am: Edit

I agree with Interesteddad that regardless of what path a child pursues, it is the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills that is often the key to long term professional success. I think this can be addressed in the context of many domains of learning, however.

I think it is a mistake to think that even if an individual chooses a technical path, however, that you have to or can ever "give up" on the non-technical elements of your work. My husband is a great engineer- in part because of superior technical skills but also because of his visual esthetic (he is a fine graphic artist), his writing skills (he is a superior technical editor) and his ability to speak clearly and effectively (the first time I saw him he was starring in a show in college). In fact, I think he finds his work satisfying because of all the facets of the job, not just the technical ones. What he can't incorporate on the job he does in his free time- not that Karaoke can be compared with his light opera experience! Could he have made a go in one of these areas as a profession, well maybe. Would he be a happier person, I doubt it!

I personally would never discourage a child's well developed passions, but would also make sure my budding dancer or mathematician or whatever could read to learn, listen to understand and write and speak to communicate... so I think until a child goes off to college (!) it is the parents' responsibility to help them see the need to keep doors open.

The beauty of the American secondary school and college/university system is that students do not have to start specializing too early to get a superior tertiary education- no matter their field of interest.

By Latetoschool (Latetoschool) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 11:08 am: Edit

"What should be the parent's role here"? - that's something I would like to know too. Daughter and I have had many discussions re her majors and focuses, mostly with her talking, and my singular contribution being variations of "study whatever you wish, whatever makes you happy". I believe she's examined - and we've discussed - every discipline at least once - engineering, bio, political science, languages - one morning, on the phone with me, she went all the way through law school before ever getting out of bed. Most recently - when I took her to campus this year - she talked with great interest about a potential military career, thinking about the Air Force, or perhaps the Marine Corp, or perhaps she could be a Navy Seal?

She's 1500 SATs (evenly split, no prep, one sitting), AP Scholar in physics, calc, bio, etc. - all the hard sciences. She actually had the highest AP scores in the sciences of anyone in her high school. Goal is to go to med school, but also wants a shot at the Olympics, and definitely wants to be a coach in her sport. Also thinks she might want to pursue entrance to the FBI Academy, and has actually explored getting a law degree AND an MD. She has been able to intern at a hospital and loved it; I was able to get her a day-long tour of Quantico through business connections and she loved that - she thinks she might want to be a profiler, or crime scene investigator.

As a junior, she has finally settled on a dual degree - B.S. in biochem and B.A. in art history - the first because it will get her to med school, the second because she enjoys it, and both combined because she believes it may support an eventual federal law enforcement career.

Being a high school drop out, I am of course at a nearly total loss. I know nothing about medicine or law enforcement or art history, and so when she asks my opinion my responses are very abbreviated because I do not want to be wrong. She always asks me, and my responses are always along the lines of "take whatever classes interest you most" and "try your best to keep your options open as long as possible" and "don't worry so much about your grades - take the harder class, don't take a class just because it's an easier "A" than some other class". This seems like inadequate advice at best, and possibly harmful advice at worst.

Lately, I've found myself having to say "this is beyond my experience and exceeds my knowledge - let's try to find someone who knows" and "please check with other sources because I might be wrong".

Being a D-1 athlete and averaging 18 hours per semester she has little time to research things like MCAT prep courses, etc., so I try to do that for her. Her coursework this semester for example is the continuing diet of physics, chem, bio, calculus, plus the associated labs, plus sociology and something else I cannot even remember - language, or some requirement towards the art history degree. It seems frightfully hard and so I should be providing support. I also try to get her access to strong mentors from agencies such as the FBI, and also persons in the medical community - I make the introductions and get the doors open and she takes it from there - that has worked very, very well so far. She has been able to maintain some very nice mentoring relationships out of this informal process.

When I suggest she talk to advisors at school, she tells me they aren't much help - she says basically they ask what she wants to study, and in response they can tell her what classes to take, but they really aren't very helpful in terms of engaging in dialog about strategic education in support of career goals. Having zero frame of reference, I cannot gage if this is true, or normal.

She told me that her problem is that she is interested in ALL of the classes (except for anything related to business), and it's a shame she has to pick just one or two degrees.

Am I doing this right? Is it o.k. for me to just sit back, contribute little substance and trust that somehow she'll figure it all out?

When she was little, it was so much easier - there were Dr. Spock books, and pediatricians, teachers, other parents, etc. There isn't any Dr. Spock book that gives me a roadmap or guidance on how to be a parent or even just trusted resource to a now 20-year old who is in uncharted territory for me and has achieved beyond my experiences, feeling helpless, I'm sending yet another box of cookies - that seems so inadequate...

By Rhonda63 (Rhonda63) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 11:14 am: Edit

Late -- I think you are giving her very good advice -- she should do what she likes, challenge herself, and consult experts. You've even gone beyond that in taking first steps to find her mentors.

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 11:17 am: Edit


Would your D consider a career in forensic pathology? I knew someone who'd chosen this career because of the regular hours.

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 11:29 am: Edit

"For example, when I graduated from college, the first personal computer had not not yet hit the market and most of the science curriculum is as obsolete today as the study of leeches in medicine."

Hey, leeches are being used as a modern therapy to reduce swelling after surgery.
(see the part about leeches after plastic surgery.... if I didn't want plastic surgery before, I really don't now.)

By Emptynester (Emptynester) on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 11:38 am: Edit

"this is beyond my experience and exceeds my knowledge - let's try to find someone who knows" and "please check with other sources because I might be wrong".

LOL have been saying that to mine for a very long time and can't imagine why they still want my opinion on anything academic though it is rather touching in a way they still think mom's ideas may have some value. Frequently I wonder if it is just a way of keeping me involved? You sound like about the most perfect parent imaginable to me!

"but they really aren't very helpful in terms of engaging in dialog about strategic education in support of career goals."

IMHO she needs some new advisors! In my admittedly rather limited experience this sort of student (if not overwhelmingly shy) will be offered unsolicited advice and support by many professors including career counseling. You might want to inquire if any of her profs (not necessarily her official advisors) have asked her about her prof/grad school plans or offered to write recs. Those might be good people to begin this dialogue with if she hasn't already done so.

Both mine (nowheres near as multi-talented as yours!) are talking multiple grad degrees. We are trying to find them both older faculty/industry (one does science) people, current grad students, and recent grads who have followed similar paths so they can get a range of views and advice. Since they won't be able to pursue more than one degree at a time (at least so far I've been able to convince them of that courseLOL) the main decision will be which one makes most sense first. Who knows if their current plans will even materialize? We keep telling them that no plan is fixed in stone and that they can change their minds and even their majors at any point... tho they must graduate with some kind of undergrad degree in four years due to financial constraints.

I am sure others will have better more on target advice for you! What a lucky mom you are!

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