STS majors in Professor Allison Carruth’s senior colloquium, “Food in Information Age,” at the Stanford Community Farm. A group of students in class used the farm as a case study for how evolving technologies have shaped agriculture and contemporary food culture.

Liberal Education for the Twenty-First Century: Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford University

April
2012

C.P. Snow first warned against "the two cultures"—the divide between the hard sciences and the social sciences and humanities—in 1959, but many campus structures still reflect this split today. "But students actually live in a very different world," says Fred Turner, director of the Science, Technology, and Society program at Stanford University. "Their lives slide seamlessly across science, technology, and the humanities." In the twenty-first century, when rapidly evolving digital technology and increasing globalization affect nearly every aspect of life, students need to develop fluency across many disciplines, and they are looking for ways to think across those divides.

Stanford's Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program gives students that opportunity. The interdisciplinary program allows students to take courses across the sciences and humanities, with guided research opportunities to help them make connections among those disciplines. Stanford's program dates back to the 1970s, but it has seen a huge influx of students in recent years—with more than 170 majors, it is now one of the largest programs in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Turner attributes this surge in part to the current cultural and economic situation students are witnessing. "We sit with Facebook at the edge of campus, Google six miles away—we have all these firms around us who need people who can do it both ways." As STS associate director Allison Carruth puts it, "we're doing the liberal education of the twenty-first century."

Mastering Twenty-First Century Competencies

Stanford's STS program offers both BA and BS degrees. With either degree students choose one of five topical tracks, each of which requires coursework in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, though the balance varies by track and degree. BA students must complete at least four courses in one of the applied sciences so as to achieve at least intermediate competency and familiarity with scientific methodologies, Carruth says. "In doing so they develop what we call technical literacy—not just in a particular area of science, but also to develop literacy in some of the methodologies of science and engineering research."

BS students, on the other hand, engage in much more comprehensive coursework in "soft" subjects such as communications, history, or anthropology—and produce more writing—than they might if they majored in a purely scientific discipline. Through these courses, students "are invited to think about the social context in which science and technology research and development happen, in both contemporary and historical modes," Carruth says. The program also puts an emphasis on the ethics and values that are connected to the scientific processes, she adds. "Our students come out of the program being able to ask those questions when they enter the professional field—who are the stakeholders, and can we think about that question capaciously? What are some of the unintended consequences of this technology, and what are some of its potential upsides that we haven't addressed or even thought of?"

Before starting in the topical tracks, all students—BA and BS—take the STS 1 core seminar, a gateway course that is team-taught by three faculty members to give a breadth of disciplinary perspectives. STS students come together again for senior colloquiums, which approach a particular topic from a variety of scientific and humanistic angles and require students to apply knowledge and skills acquired from their range of coursework. "The biggest skill STS has given me is the ability to synthesize," says senior Maya Amoils. "I always feel synergy in my classes, even if they seem completely disconnected."

Integrative and Applied Learning

Because STS majors take courses from many departments to fulfill their requirements, students experience a range of teaching styles. In the courses taught within STS, however, the program is making a concerted effort to increase opportunities for hands-on, applied learning. Faculty teaching STS 1 this coming fall are considering the use of open-access web publishing in the class, with an interactive website to which students can contribute. John Willinsky, an affiliated faculty member from the education department, teaches a class in which students learn about scholarly publishing in digital age through work on the STS student journal, Intersect. He also advises another student who is helping other campus journals move to online publishing platforms that incorporate peer review and indexing for search engines. Other students get hands-on experience conducting research in one of the six different labs on campus with which STS is affiliated.

Carruth, who teaches the senior colloquium, says a combination of group and individual assignments is also central to the pedagogy of the program. Her most recent colloquium, "Food in the Age of Information," focused on how technology has shaped contemporary agriculture and food culture. Working in teams, students visited sites of food innovation in the Bay Area, where they conducted original research and then presented their findings in multimedia presentations. "I was pretty blown away by those," Carruth says, "and I think it speaks to the fact that teams were made up of both BA and BS majors, and they were made of students who had all gone through the STS major, but had such diverse foci over the course of their education."

Some students opt to complete honors theses rather than take the colloquium course. The honors thesis, completed by about 10 percent of STS students, is a year-and-half process requiring extensive primary research. The diverse curricular options of the program create both opportunities and challenges for students—and for instructors, Carruth says. Students need guidance from faculty on how to work across multiple disciplines. "One of the tricks in the STS classroom is to be really extra explicit when you're shifting terrain—I will literally say to them, 'for the last 20 minutes we've been doing a sociology of the biotech lab, but I want to switch now and put on our critical thinking hats and analyze some of the metaphors that have organized that research.' I'll do that explicit transition, and then allow more time for students to synthesize and let them reflect on what they learned when they shifted lenses and examined the same topic." Senior Anna Buehler particularly appreciates this element of her STS classes. "You can understand the theory from a more comprehensive angle because you learn about it from more than one discipline," she says.

Working through the Departments

Operating an interdisciplinary program at a university organized around disciplinary departments poses certain logistical challenges. Turner points out that the program only fully "owns" and teaches the introductory course and the senior colloquiums. All other classes are drawn from various departments and schools across campus, from engineering to anthropology to English. Affiliated faculty from the departments also provide extensive advising to students working on honors theses. "We're working with faculty who have obligations to their home departments and who have department chairs who, for good reasons, want to keep them in those spaces," Turner says. "STS provides for the faculty a space to think about interdisciplinary issues that may not necessarily have a home in their department, so it makes good sense—the challenge is convincing chairs and deans that it's worthwhile for the home school or department to have that faculty member involved with us."

Turner and his colleagues have a number of methods of doing this, including using STS funds to employ graduate students from the departments as TAs in STS classes. Funding is tight though—about two-thirds of the program's budget comes from the dean's office for the School of Sciences and Humanities, with the rest coming in payouts from a small endowment built on alumni donations. After the recent boom in majors, the program is just at the edge of financial sustainability. More than buying departmental cooperation with TAs, Turner says, "we try to be so interesting that departments and schools are excited to be affiliated with us. . . . Interdisciplinary programs can be real sites of innovation, particularly in teaching. We're an outpost that takes chances that can feed back into the departments in useful ways."

Identifying faculty and administrators who are willing to take those chances is crucial step for faculty interested in developing an interdisciplinary program, Turner says. "If we didn't have a very engaged faculty who would go and explain to their chairs why they need to be involved in an interdisciplinary program and why it's good for their department, the program wouldn't work." By the same token, administrators who can envision the university working in different ways are essential to helping programs get off the ground.

But perhaps most important is identifying an intellectual community among the students and assessing their needs and interests. "They have a sense of what issues are very important in their world and their lives, and they may be very different from those of us who are twenty or thirty years older," Turner says. "What's important to our students is figuring out how to live in both human and scientific worlds in a way you really didn't have to when I was a young person."

"We call STS the liberal arts for the twenty-first century," Turner says. "That's what we want to be, the place where people ask what it means to be human both in science and technological terms and in humanistic and social terms. That's the kind of world we're living in, so that's the kind of world we're trying to teach to. If you have a university that hasn't found bridge spaces for those two worlds, that's an opportunity."

Institution: 
Stanford University