Students Explore the Ethics of Science and Technology in STS Minor
By Gina Myers
July 21, 2021
For many, the coronavirus pandemic made clear how much technology has infiltrated aspects of our work and home lives—from Zoom calls and classes, to ordering groceries online and streaming entertainment. When K-12 schools were forced to shift to remote learning, questions of access arose as The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the numbers of Philadelphia school students who don’t have computers or internet access at home. And as the race to find a vaccine and COVID-19 treatments were underway, stories of distrust in the medical field were also on the rise.
This moment brought many questions into focus: Who has access to technology? Does technology empower all users or can it be exploitative? Has society been fundamentally changed by becoming more tech-reliant in the past year-and-a-half? Is tech changing how we think and interact with one another? Where does the distrust in the medical field come from?
As science, technology, engineering and medicine continue to advance, it is critical to consider the impact developments and practices have on society. For this reason, science, technology and society (STS) programs—also referred to as science and technology studies—are growing both in the United States and worldwide. The ability to critically identify the values and incentives built into scientific knowledge and technology design and use is a highly valued skill in health care, government, public policy, tech, engineering and other sectors.
At Drexel, the Center for Science, Technology and Society (STS) serves as the intellectual home for faculty and students who study the social dimensions of science, technology, medicine and engineering. The Center for STS is both an interdisciplinary research center and an interdisciplinary educational center, where students can train in STS theories and methods as well as complete a minor in the field.
“Science, technology and society is an interdisciplinary field that has been around since roughly the late 1960s,” explains Chloe Silverman, PhD, associate professor of politics and director for the Center for STS. “It originates in the work of scholar-activists who were concerned about the social consequences of developments in science and technology, including in fields such as genetics and nuclear weapons development.
“It has now become an established international academic field that incorporates history of science, anthropology and sociology of science, philosophy of science, and science policy studies,” she says.
The minor in STS allows students to explore the cultural, ethical, historical, political and institutional dimensions of science, medicine and technology. By pursuing this minor, students will develop an interdisciplinary approach that empowers them to critically analyze how society affects and shapes these fields, as well as how these fields affect and shape society.
Cam LaPorte, a senior pursuing a BS/MS in Communication, realized partway through his time at Drexel that he had already taken several classes in the minor. “I find the overlap between sociological and technological perspectives to be interesting. Access—or lack thereof—use, and overall societal impact of technology is a curious—and, I would argue, keystone—avenue of understanding when existing in a time that's so technologically dense,” he explains. “I figured that taking the minor would help me better understand both the explicit and implicit effects that technological use and development has had on our society at large, especially when looking at the different historical, political and geographic contexts they've been experienced in, all in an effort to gain a more critical lens when confronting new technologies moving forward.
“If we're to maintain some type of conscious and just society, there needs to be a critical and holistic understanding of what constitutes that society, and because technological developments are moving at a faster rate than ever, understanding how the world functions can be grappled best through that technological framework,” he says.
The STS minor is appropriate for a wide range of students, from those like LaPorte, who are interested in questioning the societal and ethical impact of technology and science, to students who are pre-med, studying engineering or pursuing computing and informatics.
“Having that social scientific and humanistic perspective on medical practice is really important for practitioners. A lot of our courses have a bioethics focus, which makes for better doctors,” explains Silverman. For example, SCTS 200: Addiction and Society considers the ethics of harm reduction strategies to address substance use, a recent topic of political debate in Philadelphia. Other courses, such as Associate Professor of Politics Gwen Ottinger, PhD’s SCTS 202: Innovation and Social Justice, explore how technological developments can have disproportionate impacts on disadvantaged or marginalized populations.
LaPorte adds, “If you're somebody who's interested in technological developments or who cares about having an equal society, the minor will certainly go far in imparting either type of understanding.”
He also notes that this minor could be particularly helpful for people interested in developing new technologies. “I think that the coursework herein should be required for somebody working on new tech, as it'll provide such a rich and nuanced comprehension that would only further refine your pre-existing ideas. Because society functions based upon what we do and what we do begins with the tools and technologies we use, if you're somebody looking to understand this society or change society by virtue of introducing new tools, this minor is certainly right for you.”
Political science major Jordan Ramdial ’21 agrees with LaPorte. She decided to minor in STS because she wanted to see the real-world application of the political theories she had been studying, but she also sees why this would be an important area of study for STEM students. “I would recommend other students pursue this minor to widen their perspective. I would especially encourage students in STEM who are looking to make change in their field because I think STS is a great place to gather tools to create that institutional change,” she says.
Ramdial describes the need for a holistic approach to addressing today’s problems. “The scientific and technological problems that society faces now and will face in the future cannot be solved without factoring in the cultural, political and institutional history as well,” she says. “The harsh line between social sciences and hard sciences must be blurred so that an interdisciplinary approach can be used to get a more holistic perspective of the subjects being studied.”
To complete the minor, students must take SCTS 101: Introduction to Science, Technology and Society, which is the only required course. SCTS 101 serves as an introduction to how political, social and economic factors shape the development of scientific concepts, medical practices and technological design, and vice versa.
In addition to the required introductory course, students take 24 credits of their choice from select classes across many disciplines. These classes include Digital Culture; Climate Change and Human Health; Race, Crime and Justice; Science Fiction; History of Science; Ethics and Information Technology; Philosophy of Science; Environmental Politics; and Women and Human Rights Worldwide, among other choices. Course topics include addiction, artificial intelligence, medical practice, technology and innovation, and social justice, which makes this minor a great fit for many students. In fact, Silverman notes, many students have completed more than half of the required credits before declaring the minor.
There are also many opportunities for students to conduct research and have hands-on experience. SCTS faculty teaching courses in the minor offer research opportunities for undergraduates. LaPorte’s favorite class in the minor was PLCY T580: The Energy Vulnerability Lab, taught by Associate Professor of Politics Ali Kenner, PhD. “My classmates and I got the opportunity to become a part of a larger, multi-year long ethnographic investigation into how, especially during the pandemic, people confronted and conceptualized their use of energy. Beyond just the fascinating coursework, we all conducted multiple interviews on the topic to really understand the lived experience,” explains LaPorte.
The course inspired a new passion for LaPorte. “[It gave] a really intriguing look at how communities around the world are decentralizing their energy use. Historical use of centralized power grids provides an unequal distribution of energy, which itself compounds upon pre-existing societal issues, further disparaging society's most vulnerable. This can be remedied through community action, but I wouldn't have known—and become passionate about—any of these issues without the course!”
Learn more about the Science, Technology and Society minor in the Course Catalog.