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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Penn State's STS Pogram: A Future in General Education?


In September, I posted on this blog a piece about the death of Dr. Rustum Roy, who was, among other achievements, one of the founders of the interdisciplinary Science, Technology, and Society curriculum at Penn State.  Recently, I was sad to read in the Centre Daily Times that Penn State is considering closing this program, pending Faculty Senate approval.  I am sad not only for Dr. Roy’s memory, but for the lost potential to Penn State’s general education program.

            A Wikipedia entry about STS indicates that more than two dozen universities worldwide have developed baccalaureate programs in STS.  Since 2005, four U.S. institutions have launched new STS programs.  Penn State’s STS curriculum—a collaboration between the colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts—is positioned as an undergraduate minor.  Here, perhaps, lies the problem. STS developed in an era that launched a number of “area studies” programs—Women’s Studies, Asian Studies, African-American Studies, etc.  Many of these area studies have become established as academic departments in their own right.  STS, however, might better be structured not as a separate research and teaching area, but as a component of general education.

            Wikipedia defines STS as “the study of how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these in turn affect society, politics, and culture.”  It emerged as an interdisciplinary innovation in the 1960s, a time up general social upheaval, but also a time when we were just becoming aware that a new dynamic was forming.  Call it the Information Age or the Knowledge Society, or whatever, this new age required citizens who could see the intricate interactions among scientific research, technological innovation, and social values.  We are now a generation into this new era, but I don’t think we are past the point where we need to educate citizens about the interactions among science, technology, and society.  If anything, this kind of interdisciplinary curriculum is more urgent than ever.

            The ultimate value of STS, then, may not be as a separate research and teaching specialty.  Instead, its real value may be as part of a general education curriculum.   One can imagine (as I suggested in my earlier posting about STS) a complete general education curriculum structured around STS as a theme, similar to the old Contemporary Civilizations program at Columbia.  However, STS is more likely to gain acceptance as an option within a more traditional distribution-style general education curriculum.   It is easy to visualize STS courses that would meet general education distribution requirements in science, social sciences, and humanities.  The interdisciplinary nature of STS courses would facilitate cross-posting over several distribution areas.   In addition, institutions could develop upper-division STS courses that serve as interdisciplinary, issues-focused baccalaureate capstone courses that send new professionals out into the workplace better prepared to deal with STS-related issues in their fields.

            I fully understand why Science, Technology, and Society as a minor area would be considered for closure.  However, re-conceiving the STS vision within the general education curriculum would be a great way to maintain the heart of the program and prepare undergraduates to engage in a society that continues to be transformed by science and technology.