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Becoming an STS Thinker

Becoming an STS thinker is about having fun and agency as teachers and students. It’s about empowering ourselves to change things about the world we don’t like. And one of the things we struggled with was traditional classroom structure and pedagogy, including some of the standard ways we saw STS being taught. In the classroom, we try to fight the impulse to see human agency as limited in a technologically dominated world. The Science, Technology and Society College Park Scholars program challenges STEM students to see themselves as socially responsible change agents in that world. We use a social constructivist framework to demonstrate how standard ways of thinking about science and technology close down possibilities of what technologies are developed and what types of scientific questions are asked. We also explore how this way of thinking justifies the status quo in power structure and creates an artificial dichotomy between technical and social processes, thereby fostering a culture of complacency towards future directions of S&T. In essence, we like to emphasize that humans and technoscience need to get along: Humans <> Technology. How do we do this?

We emphasize systems thinking. This is essentially what it means to be an STS Thinker. Becoming an STS thinker evolved out of struggling with the constraints of traditional classroom structure and pedagogy and from the teaching team at the Academy of Innovation and Entreprenuership (AIE), where one of us co-taught a class, “How to Be a Design Thinker.” While much of what it means to be an STS thinker has emerged from our experiences over the past six years, a watershed moment helped push us to abandon tradition for a more playful, agentic form of teaching. The moment, or epiphany, occurred during an advice session with AIE about our capstone course. They helped us realize we had been hanging on to the idea that students needed to produce a research paper framed with an STS concept. We had long experienced anxiety about the research paper being a highly stressful endeavor for students that we feared got in the way of learning. Students struggled with finding good sources of data, framing their projects with STS concepts, and developing good social science research questions around science and technology issues. The moment when Erica Estrada-Liou asked us, “Do you need a research paper?” we had that watershed moment when your perspective shifts completely.  

We concluded, "NO!" Creating a 10-15-page research paper was keeping us from focusing on what skills we wanted our students to have: to be able to ask good STS questions (e.g., finding substantive and hidden ethical issues related to science and technology) and frame them through STS concepts.  We decided to experiment by removing the research paper and creating a framework for an STS mindset. We did this by giving students assignments where they had to deploy data collection techniques and frame data in terms of socio-technical systems. We broadened the pallet of data collection techniques from mainly primary and secondary documents to a suite of ethnographic skills: interviews, natural observation, participation observation, focus groups, visual image analysis, and metaphor analysis. We reasoned that only when they had gathered data could they begin to formulate STS questions.

What does it mean to become an STS Thinker? We’re open to your ideas on this one. So far, here’s what we have:

An STS Thinker takes a systems thinking mindset that involves:

  1.  seeking ethics in artifacts;
  2. listening contextually
  3. making meaning
  4. seeking stories about science and technology’s past, present, and future
  5. locating power in systems
  6. developing STS questions, and
  7. hosting an STS party

How does this contribute to our goals? If students take STS mindsets and data collection skills into their STEM classrooms, internships, and careers, we will have given them life-long tools for responsibly interrogating their interactions with science and technology. This approach to the capstone course proved successful--students seemed to enjoy learning more, and were less afraid to share their thoughts and inferences. Some students initially balk at the idea of using ethnographic data collection techniques, but by the end of the course use them to help generate STS questions. If STEM students become STS Thinkers, they---hopefully!!!---become change agents.

A long standing quest in STS is to deconstruct dichotomies that create other. STS thinkers have improved capacity to understand self and others in ways that improve collaborations. These collaborations may be conversations with users and the public, as well as with other disciplines that inform design and policy. These collaborations are requisite for building high performing, resilient systems (ones that mitigate harm, pursue sustainability, and optimize benefits). Understanding self involves developing skills that encourage reflection and reflexivity, to not only reflect on the consequences of actions, but also act in a way that changes those actions for the better. The capacity to empathize is critical if STEM students are to transcend technical narrowness and linear thinking, to more fully understand other people’s lived experiences with science and technology.

We link these skills of understanding self and others to assessing systems. What makes a system vulnerable? What makes it resilient? From their bodies, to their communities, to global events, our students come to see the complexity of the world they live in and how it is intertwined with the perceptions of others. How well a system works is contingent on how people feel about the system. And learning about this comes through collecting data about people’s encounters with science and technology, which doesn’t really work unless it is somewhat aligned with societal needs.

But, what is an “STS Party”?

An STS party means getting people together to think deeply about the consequences of decision-making around science and technology. At the end of the two-year program, students hold mini-deliberations on their research topics (STS Conversation Lab). First we lead students through activities to create an artifact (e.g., game board, stakeholder cards, conversation piece, etc.) that encourages discussion using techniques we have gleaned from design thinking as well as the Sloan Kettering Foundation (Rourke). Rather than pitching participants about their findings, students learn to be conversation facilitators and data collectors (e.g., focus group research) that enhances understanding of their topic. Students collect data from these interactions and integrate it into a final reflection about how talking with others help them think about their own beliefs and values.

STS parties lead us away from seeing a world that can be answered through a series of closed ended questions with finite answers to a world where answers and solutions are open-ended. We end up with more questions than when we started, and we’re good with that. We identify multiple pathways for science and technology that go beyond historically dominant pathways. Working together to map systems and learn from others – that is the essence of an STS party!

Rourke, Brad. Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums. Sloan Kettering Foundation, 2014.

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Created date

June 7, 2019

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