Balancing finals as a STEM and art double major

By Hayley Lesh, Staff Writer

For most students, the idea of a STEM and fine arts double major seems foreign, especially with finals season now here. To many STEM and arts double majors, this means balancing traditional exam finals with turning in semester-long projects and portfolios.

The difference between junior computer science and music performance major Jordan Bender’s dual majors is apparent in his finals. For computer science, he is often presented with a traditional paper and pencil final, while his music classes often evaluate his skills through performances. For his Music Theory 3 course, Bender needed to apply the musical knowledge he gained throughout the semester through a final research paper.

“Skills in music classes tend to compound upon one another, so it’s more of a cumulative sort of final,” Bender said. “Whereas computer science classes, in my experience, have been less cumulative and more ‘what have you done since the last test.’”

Growing up, Bender played percussion as a member of the school band, yet his love of music never overshadowed his love of technology and video games. He’s interested in possibly coding for video games and working in game design, while he plans on using his music degree to work toward a performance career in musical theater.

Though he’s following his passions, balancing two courses of study hasn’t always been easy for Bender — he didn’t realize the extreme differences in his two majors would make his experience a lot tougher than others’.

“I don’t think I realized how busy I would be going into having a double major because people have double majors in related areas quite often,” he said.

Two majors can be difficult to balance, especially with a minor attached. Junior Alex Johnson is currently pursuing an environmental studies and communications double major as well as a studio arts minor. In contrast to Bender, Johnson said his interests do not conflict as much as other students may think.

“It’s honestly been super helpful to have different ways to approach the things I care about,” he said. “[Double majoring] offers an interesting perspective, and it’s never been entirely separate things that are hard to think about at the same time.”

In preparing for finals, Johnson said that he spends five or six hours preparing for an environmental studies final. Meanwhile, a final project in studio arts can take 10 to 15 hours to complete because of the artistic detail that is often involved.

“I think the studio arts classes are a lot more time consuming and require more commitment than studying for a written final for environmental science,” Johnson said. “You just have to be on top of it and be proactive about starting things well before they’re due.”

Delaney Jenkins, chair of the studio arts department, said studio art finals are different from a traditional paper and pencil final because students have to show how they’ve developed their skills over the course of the semester and are then critiqued by their professors and classmates.

“A critique in studio arts is like a final exam. You show up with your accomplished piece and you present it,” Jenkins said. “You’re getting full feedback now. You’ve been getting feedback on the parts, but now here’s the final thing.”

During a critique, students present their finalized piece to the class. Their peers provide feedback and explain its possible meanings. The artist then interprets their work in front of the class, where they are provided with additional comments from their classmates and professor.

Johnson originally planned to enter college as an art major, but said he found that he is more passionate about the environment. Johnson said he hopes to use his interest in the environment and his communications and studio arts background to promote a better understanding of scientific issues through artwork.

“I think creating artwork that talks about environmental science, and in particular environmental issues, is just another way to get people interested and contribute new ideas in a nontraditional way to that discussion about environmentalism and science in general,” he said.

While Johnson views his studio arts classes as more time-consuming than his STEM work, Ari Freedman, a sophomore who majors in neuroscience and music, sees his situation differently. He said his neuroscience major often presents a greater challenge than music due to the amount of material he must remember for finals.

“My finals for my STEM major rely a lot more on my ability to memorize information, whereas my finals for the music major require more of a bodied understanding of what the music is,” Freedman said. “It seems that there’s more weight in the classes that are science based. Maybe because I feel there is more of a challenge, more of a pressure in the world of professional sciences.”

Biology professor Erica McGreevey said STEM finals often assess students’ ability to recall information from the beginning of the semester as well as the material they are currently learning, citing the Foundations of Biology exam, which consists of 40 multiple choice questions covering material from the entire semester.

“Often times, it will have a section of new material as well, so students are learning something new in addition to having to demonstrate their understanding of the entire course content,” she said.

While remembering material for his neuroscience exams adds to Freedman’s stress around finals, it’s important for him to pursue in regards to what he wants to do. His goal is to analyze how music can affect mental and emotional states. He utilizes his music and neuroscience interests in his current research position at an occupational lab, where he conducts EEG studies of patients and examines what parts of the brain are affected when a musical stimulus is present.

“I liked the fact that we could use an empirically based understanding of the world to change what we were doing,” Freedman said, “that we could realize certain things are flawed and that we could learn what is the best way to go about doing things using science.”

Despite the differences between the arts and STEM, Johnson still finds that they can work together in harmony. He said he utilizes both of these fields and feels that others should do the same.

“I would encourage people to pursue art, even if they are a science major, because you can always find a way to connect the two,” Johnson said.