New Science, Technology and Society program pushes disciplinary boundaries

Professor of Mathematics Moon Duchin talks about the newly-launched Society, Technology and Society (STS) program in the Sophia Gordon Multi-Purpose Room on March 10, 2016. (Jiaxun Li / The Tufts Daily)

The Science, Technology and Society (STS) Program may be new at Tufts, but it is quickly gaining traction among students who are eager to learn more about this emerging field.

In spring 2016, the program began offering an undergraduate co-major and minor in STS. Currently, the program has three tracks of study: bodies, health and medicine; science and the state; and mathematics and modeling.

STS Program Director and Associate Professor of Mathematics Moon Duchin described the three tracks of study as designed around the STS core faculty’s teaching and research interests. She said that the tracks also give STS students more direction in their academic pursuits.

“If you’re a student, STS sounds so broad and could mean many different things, so these tracks help you take a coherent set of courses that fit together and build on each other,” she said.

Duchin, an associate professor of mathematics, explained that while Tufts is far from the first university to offer a program in STS, to her knowledge, it is the first in the United States to offer a track focused on mathematics and mathematical models.

“The timing is apt because the social impacts and ethical concerns of big data are looming large in the 21st century,” she said.

Nathan Foster, a junior majoring in physics, stressed the importance of the program in not just presenting scientific topics as facts but also explaining the context of their development or real-world applications.

“The truth is, the science only exists if it is useful and because some person thought that it would be worthwhile to devote time and effort to figure out how to use it to help people,” Foster said.

This semester, Foster, who is considering the STS co-major or minor, is taking two courses that count toward STS. He said that his cross-disciplinary interests in science, politics and policy fit well with the STS program.

“[STS] looks for students who are interested in the quantitative and the problem-solving side of science but are not just satisfied with that and actually care about how that affects people’s lives,” he said.

Margaret Gorguissian, a sophomore majoring in computer science, explained that taking two STS courses this semester has helped broaden her understanding of the world.

“[The courses] have changed how I think about technology. Technology is no longer necessarily a series of ones and zeroes or a bunch of circuits,” Gorguissian said. “How we interact, how we speak these are all technologies.”

She added that the program draws on Tufts’ longstanding tradition of broadening world views through multidisciplinary teaching and learning.

According to Duchin, the creation of an STS program was directly inspired by the anthropology department’s search for faculty specializing in the anthropology of science and technology in 2015. The department eventually hired Assistant Professors of Anthropology Nick Seaver and Tatiana Chudakova, both of whom are members of the STS core faculty. 

“The search chair, [Associate Professor of Anthropology] Rosalind Shaw, did a great job of reaching out to people outside of the department to get involved in that search, and that’s when some of us realized that a substantial community of faculty with STS interests [was] already here at Tufts,” Duchin said.

A group of faculty members, including Duchin, formally proposed the creation of an STS program in fall 2015.

The program is now home to over 40 affiliated and core faculty members, 10 of whom sit on the program committee that is responsible for setting the direction of STS at Tufts, according to Duchin.

Seaver, who is a member of the program committee, has been teaching classes that count toward both anthropology and STS. He said that many of his students are science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors who have a strong interest in the anthropological study of technology.

“[Those students] never quite had the chance to study these issues from an STS or anthropology perspective, and it felt like my class was filling in a niche that has not been filled before,” he said.

For students majoring in STEM fields, reading labs are an innovative gateway into the STS program. Duchin explained that students can take a half-credit reading lab with certain STEM classes to make the class count toward STS.

“The lab is one reading, one hour per week, and the class gets together to talk about the analytical or social-scientific side of a technical topic,” she said.

The fall 2016 reading lab topic was How Models Work. This semester’s topic is Social Studies of Energy.

“Calling it a lab is our way of saying that it should be treated like you treat a traditional ‘wet lab’ in biology or chemistry. It adds to your understanding of a topic by engaging a different kind of learning than you get in the main lecture,” Duchin said.

Duchin said that next fall will see two reading labs being offered one on maker culture and the other on science and engineering pedagogy.

Gorguissian noted that many of her peers on campus remain unaware of the existence of the program or of STS as a field of study.

STS is an emerging field, but if people knew more about it, they would be much more willing to take classes in it,” she said.

For Seaver, an important goal for the program is to encourage more students to study pertinent science and technology issues that they are interested in, in a way that will count towards their majors.

“Many students say they had no idea that they can study computer programming not just from the perspective of someone who wanted to only learn how to program,” he said. “STS is the sort of major that you would not know exists before you start college.”

Duchin emphasized that the program’s mission also includes working with other academic departments to augment their current course offerings.

“We’d love to be involved in helping to develop more historical or philosophical or socially-engaged science classes at the major level,” she said.

For example, Canay Özden-Schilling, a recently-hired lecturer with expertise in governance of energy flows and economic circulation, is currently teaching Physics and Society in the 20th Century in cooperation with the physics department, according to Duchin.

“We’ll keep trying to expand our efforts to get involved in what other departments are doing by co-sponsoring events and by reaching out to help connect students outside their majors to accessible upper-level classes,” Duchin said. She referenced a talk titled Life Changing Bacon,” to be held on Feb. 21 at 5 p.m. at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts, as an example.

Michelle Chan, a sophomore majoring in computer engineering, founded the Collective of STEM Activists — a project to fill a conversation gap among students in STEM about the social impacts of science and technology — with the help of the STS program.

“While many people are doing cool work on their own and in other groups, I thought it would be helpful to create a dedicated space to engage with this important intersection. When information on technological harms and benefits is more accessible, we can organize and educate each other,” Chan told the Daily in an email.

Duchin added that the proposed Data-Intensive Studies Center, one of the T10 Strategic Planning Initiatives in November 2013, can serve as an additional on-campus resource for both faculty and student researchers in the field of STS.

“This campus is going to be a great place to actually think about the social science of data and not just social science using data,” she said.

Seaver envisions that the program will be able to instill in STEM students a consciousness of society and of interdisciplinary connections.

“Having taken a class in STS, [these students] will have a different perspective on their work, which is going to help them do their job better and see what they’re doing from diverse perspectives,” he said.

Duchin echoed this mention of real-life application.

“The question of ‘how does your abstract, basic, pure science matter in the world,’ that’s what STS is about,” she said.