Friday, September 3, 2010

Science, Technology, and Society: General Education for the Information Age

This has been a year of loss for me. Earlier this spring, we lost Marlowe Froke, who founded educational/public television at Penn State and did much to move media into the educational mainstream. Then, John Buck—one of the true teachers at Penn State, who taught English literature to me, my wife, and, most important, my son—died after a long struggle with diabetes. Most recently, Rustum Roy, founder of Penn State’s Materials Research Center and one of the University's great interdisciplinary thinkers, died.

Marlowe, Rustum, and I came together around one of Rustum’s innovations: the inter-disciplinary Science, Technology, and Society Program at Penn State. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were already well into the Information Revolution. Rustum and other visionary faculty realized that higher education needed not only to help people understand the importance of science and technology, but to prepare them as citizens and professionals to deal with the impact of science and technology on society. This required a curriculum—the STS Program—that would bring together scientists, social scientists, and humanists explore the issues. Marlowe and Rustum collaborated to build a partnership among Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University (Pennsylvania’s three state-related public universities) to expand the impact of STS through distance education.

We created several distance education STS courses, each of which included a series of television documentaries, as well as a study guide and text. The first course, “The Behavioral Revolution,” looked at how behavior modification was being used by marketers and social planners to change consumer behavior. Examples in the television series included the use of random free rides to encourage people to use mass transit and, in the new planned community of Columbia, Maryland, the use of bicycle paths and clustered mailboxes to build a sense of village life in the midst of a sprawling suburb.

Another course, “The Finite Earth,” examined the limits to resources—a big issue in the early eighties—and the ethical implications of social policy decisions related to the environment and natural resources. The course introduced the idea of an “ethical community”—the group of people who are affected by a decision and who, as a result, should be at the table when the decision is made.

The STS Program is still very active at Penn State. The fall 2010 semester, for instance, includes 20 STS courses on topics such as “Technology and Human Values,” “Medical and Health Care Ethics,” “Ethics in Science and Engineering,” “Science, Technology, and Human Values,” “Energy and Modern Society,” and “Global Food Strategies: Problems and Prospects for Reducing World Hunger.” Several courses meet general education requirements; these have titles like “Modern Science, Technology, and Human Values” and “The Politics of the Ecological Crisis.” More on the STS Program at Penn State can be found at:

The original vision for STS at some institutions was that it would become fully integrated into the institution’s general education curriculum, not unlike the “Contemporary Civilizations” curriculum at Columbia University in the 1920s or the Great Books program at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. Today, a full generation into the Information Revolution, it is essential that STS be fully mainstreamed. An ideal STS program—Penn State’s curriculum has elements of this—is to include STS courses in the lower division general education curriculum, but also to have capstone STS experiences in key majors.

Just as educational media—in the form of public television—helped to extend access to STS courses in the 1970s and 1980s, the online environment provides an excellent medium not only to extend access but to foster inter-institutional collaborations that will globalize discussions of STS issues.

There is much that we can do to build on the pioneering work of Rustum Roy, Marlowe Froke, and their colleagues at research universities around the nation who were—and continue to be—concerned about Science, Technology, and Society.