The role of the physical and social sciences in a general education program is a knotty issue for curriculum planners. On one hand, higher education has become sensitized to the need for graduates to have a better foundation in disciplines that contribute to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—skills that are increasingly needed in today’s workplace. On the other hand, the current distribution curriculum—which typically allows students to meet their general education requirements by taking basic introductory courses in math and various science and social science disciplines—often fails to either prepare students for advanced study in these disciplines or to develop knowledge and skills that allow them to be more effective citizens in a technology-oriented society. In fact, many students are able to avoid taking these courses because they simply duplicate materials learned in high school.
Institutions are thus faced with two curricular issues: (1) how to prepare students with the scientific knowledge and skills needed to be successful in more advanced courses in the science disciplines and (2) how to prepare students to be effective citizens in a technological information society. Both are important to the undergraduate curriculum, but it is the second issue that is essential for how an institution defines general education.
STS: The Sciences in General Education
As I noted in the first posting in this series, the purpose of general education is to help students learn how to live and prosper in a highly inter-reliant global society and economy in which technology and mass migration and inter-dependent international supply chains are redefining “community.” The science education community has experimented for several decades with an interdisciplinary approach that addresses this goal: the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) movement. 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.” Harvard University notes that STS merges two kinds of scholarship:
The first consists of research on the nature and practices of science and technology (S&T). Studies in this genre approach S&T as social institutions possessing distinctive structures, commitments, practices, and discourses that vary across cultures and change over time. This line of work addresses questions like the following: is there a scientific method; what makes scientific facts credible; how do new disciplines emerge; and how does science relate to religion? The second stream concerns itself more with the impacts and control of science and technology, with particular focus on the risks that S&T may pose to peace, security, community, democracy, environmental sustainability, and human values. Driving this body of research are questions like the following: how should states set priorities for research funding; who should participate, and how, in technological decisionmaking; should life forms be patented; how should societies measure risks and set safety standards; and how should experts communicate the reasons for their judgments to the public?
The goal of STS teaching, notes the Harvard website, “seeks to promote cross-disciplinary integration, civic engagement, and critical thinking.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Penn State University was a leader in STS innovation, under the guidance of Dr. Rustum Roy. I was involved in several courses that used television documentaries as the basis for discussion of the inter-relationships among several disciplines. One course, The Behavioral Revolution, looked how behavior modification can be applied at the societal level. For instance, one of the documentaries look at how the then-new “planned community” of Columbia, Maryland, was using behavior modification to encourage bicycling and walking rather than automobile traffic. Another course, The Finite Earth, examined limits to resources and the ethical dimensions of social policy. Central to the course was the idea of an “ethical community,” which examined how a community defines who is affected by a decision and, thus, who should be at the table when decisions are made.
The STS approach to general education brings together both the hard sciences and the social sciences around specific societal issues to help students learn how to address problems in society. It is a model that would seem also to have potential for the humanities.