Hopeful future combines STEM and humanities

Danielle Feinberg

Have you talked to a teenager lately? I see teenagers at work and home, so I talk to them plenty. It seems harder to choose a path in life than I remember at the same age.

For one thing, careers have changed. Automation and new technology created enormous specialization across the economy these last 20 years. Now artificial intelligence threatens to scramble previously safe office jobs. No one sees this better than young people, who watch A.I. easily complete tasks teachers tell them they should learn in order to be successful.

Then we confront the divisive blend of politics and culture that runs through TikTok, Reddit and other popular social media apps. When I was a kid, college was generally seen as a good thing, perhaps not for everyone, but a benefit to society. Now we confront strong blowback against college in some circles, typically over cost and political ideology.

There is renewed interest in skilled trades and career training. The logic here is that learning a trade earns more money than one of those fancy college degrees. Meantime, schools push STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as a way to confront skills gaps.

The trades were neglected for too long, to be sure, and it’s good to see attention paid to important jobs like mechanics, nurses, and equipment operators. But there remains a shortage of these workers because of burnout and massive generational change. Demographics now plainly show that today’s young people will spend the prime of their lives caring for and paying for older generations with little to show for it in the long run.

Furthermore, what good are high paying jobs that aren’t available to most of the population? Eventually, the weight of inequality will drag down the works. And how will we express those feelings? With art, or violence?

So, you can see the dilemma facing young people. Should you learn a trade and make some money, chasing the ever-inflating cost of the American middle class? Should you go into STEM, trying to sidestep the classes that make you think about beauty or social problems? Or should you pursue a liberal arts education, becoming a well-rounded individual who lives in a one-bedroom apartment?

Add to this enormous social trauma from COVID-19 and the routine cruelty that passes for discourse on social media and sometimes even at the dinner table. I don’t envy my kids or students for what they have to overcome.

But the “two roads” — college and trades — will eventually meet. The arts and sciences have more in common than internet memes would suggest.

On April 20, Disney Pixar visual effects supervisor Danielle Feinberg spoke at the Paul Bunyan Communication Gigazone Gaming Championship and Tech Expo. The 27-year Pixar veteran shared her experiences working on movies like “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Coco,” and “Turning Red.”

Movies like these certainly qualify as art, but Feinberg found them through highly skilled STEM training. A computer science major in the 1990s, she knew her path would change when she saw some of the first Pixar short animations in class. The complex code and calculus involved in her field suddenly became tools to use in telling stories about humanity.

“Technology has power,” said Feinberg, “especially when combined with other things.”

Feinberg got her start doing highly technical computer work for Pixar, but soon began programming lighting for the animated movies. Each movie takes years to complete. She did one after the other, rising in the ranks. She was named Visual Effects Supervisor for “Turning Red,” a top position just below the director. “Turning Red” was the first Pixar film with an all female leadership team.

In a panel discussion after her talk, Feinberg advised young people considering a career in technology. She said not to be discouraged when taking on a new kind of technology or computer language. It takes time to learn how things work. Early difficulty doesn’t mean you won’t improve.

That’s the same advice I might give a young writer lamenting how their work doesn’t resemble their vision or the quality of the masters in their field. This is the single biggest reason why people give up on music, writing, theater and the visual arts. But the secret is simple, and matches exactly what Feinberg recommends.

“You’ve got to put in the hours,” she said.

And it doesn’t really matter if those hours are in humanities or STEM, tech or hands-on skills. Time makes us stronger. You have more time when you’re young than anyone else. Time is an unrealized fortune — not always in money, but in purpose. All anyone really wants or needs is purpose.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, April 27, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. This is a powerful column Aaron Brown. I was actually choked up. Thank you

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    The trades have not been ignored. There are far more opportunities for training in the trades now than there were when I was young in the 1960s. Back then, on the job training was the norm. You walked in off the street into a machine shop and they put you on a shaper, and you learned machines and techniques bit by bit. College in those days before administrators expanded their positions was less expensive. At the age of 20, I was making $19 an hour in today’s dollars driving interplant truck. I took four paychecks out of the kitchen cupboard and paid for a semester of college.

    If you go into the trades, you will make more initially than people who went into academics, but the income tends to top out early. The mental ‘trades” start more slowly but top out higher. In either case, education is remunerative. You get what you pay for. Back in the 60s, lots of kids quit school after 10th grade. Nobody thought much of it. There were lots of union jobs where one could start in a low grade labor position and work their way up. Those days are gone. The mines move as much tonnage today as they used to do with ten times as many employees in the past. The high paying labor jobs are gone.

    And young people are not spending their time and money taking care of elderly parents. That doesn’t happen until well into middle age, and they will inherit the accumulated wealth of their parents. It all comes in time. And then will come a day when they’re at the end of the line, and everybody else is gone but them, and the next group takes over. That’s life.

    • There was a period in the late 80s and 90s when I think the trades were overlooked as the early stages of automation were being realized. These things are cyclical, often lagging indicators of changes in the economy. I think we’re over-correcting now in downgrading the liberal arts.

      And when I say “taking care” I don’t mean direct caregiving. I was referring to the financial onus of maintaining the social safety net.

  3. joe musich says

    27 year old veteran Pixar veteran. Well now I wish I would have felt that at 27. Oh yea I was “putting in the work” then too. I comminicate with people in that area of work regularly. It is not all rosy, Animators used to have freeer reign in their work and now are being managed more closely. Writers room have become a thing, Meaning people are only getting short time work and on and on. There isa brilliant podcast out there covering nicely what is going on..https://www.npr.org/2024/04/25/1197965134/end-of-hollywood
    I know of a showrunner who ran a huge animated TV series ibn the 90’s. The series has been sort of redone. He and the two head writesr came back as advisors with no power other then to answer questions when asked, These are “veterans” un their late 50s. Here I could leap into a long story about storyboardoing and something called animatics but will not. All is not rosy and should not be portrayed in that manner. Hurdles are there best inform the young veterans, Good liuck to thr Lost Forty Studios. I am being real serious here. But market saturation is bering down. Be forsigned enough tpo persue dual career educastion.

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