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Infiltrating STS Inside the Walls of STS-free Institutions

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Haldun Özaktaş is an academic in the field of electrical engineering who started to teach the course “Science, Technology, Society” at Bilkent University, in 1995. This course is the first introductory STS course given in a university in Turkey, and it is still on the engineering curricula as a compulsory course in Bilkent. I first encountered the name of Haldun Özaktaş in an article entitled “Teaching Science, Technology, and Society to Engineering Students: A Sixteen Year Journey”. In this paper, while sharing his experiences as an STS course instructor, Özaktaş also underlines the importance of STS by distinguishing it from similar courses such as Engineering Ethics.

After reading the article, I had the chance to talk with Özaktaş on how that 20-year journey started and how it is experienced by both himself and his students. Then, I talked with Emine Öncüler, one of the current instructors of the course, who has a background in Sociology and has taken over the course after Özaktaş. Throughout our talk, there were moments when I thought about my own academic journey between engineering, social sciences, and STS as well. Therefore, while hearing about how STS can be innovated in a setting where it has no institutional grounding, I was also discovering what STS can innovate for researchers, instructors, and engineering students, especially for the ones who recognize the limits of disciplinary disintegration and would like to challenge these limits.

In the mid-90s, eminent universities in Turkey started the transform the engineering faculties to fulfill the criteria of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Bilkent was among those universities and put effort to incorporate the issue of ethics into the engineering curricula like any other university that pursues ABET accreditation. Although Özaktaş does not think that the principles of ABET are STS-related, he acknowledges the accreditation process as an opportunity that enabled him to open the course. So, Özaktaş’ experiences in introducing an STS course show the importance of transformation periods in expanding institutional limits which imply another challenge: the challenge of introducing STS as a research area to the students who have neither heard about it nor been familiar to STS-related matters. Regarding the formation of engineering students, the challenge appears to be a serious one. Özaktaş states, “even the most qualified high schools gave inadequate education on social sciences and humanities to their engineering students. In their university lives, they take a few nontechnical courses, most of which are related to language learning.” The students’ preferences are not only about their acquaintance with social sciences and humanities. In line with the grand narratives of engineering, they are prone to belittle these disciplines and reject their necessity.

So, how did Özaktaş and Öncüler take the challenge of introducing STS to the engineering students? “I designed the course from scratch by taking the characteristics of student groups into consideration”, says Özaktaş. On the feedback he received, he modified the course content: he assigned less complicated readings and those that students can easily relate to. For example, he did not restrict course assignments to academic texts, he used texts from the media on the subjects about which students have already heard and thought, such as energy, environment, and bioethics. Öncüler also emphasized the importance of finding common grounds with respect to students’ interests. In the first week of the course, she makes a short survey to understand their fields of interest, and she updates the course content accordingly. The topics of energy, environment, and bioethics give way to machine learning, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality as attractive topics for students in her narration. For example, if there are students who are interested in machine learning, she encourages them to discuss ‘bias in machine learning’ by using the theories of STS. Besides, the students have the chance to enhance their own academic focus through term projects. As they move forward, they bring readings and cases about their projects to the class and discuss them in relation to the theories they learn throughout the lectures. Therefore, the instructors’ teaching practices not only enable them to innovate STS to attract students’ attention but also make students innovate STS in their field of engineering.

So why innovating STS? Why did Özaktaş strive for substituting the Engineering Ethics course with an STS course? The answer to this question lies in the distinction he draws between micro and macro ethics.  He says, “as taught in engineering ethics courses, ethics means the application of philosophical approaches to the cases, and it has a narrow framework that only focuses on individuals’ process of making ethical decisions. We call this approach micro ethics.” The inadequacy of this approach, as he states, is that “the cases have social dimensions; economic, political, and cultural dimensions beyond an individual basis”. He believes STS presents a deeper perspective compared to these basic approaches, and it allows students to discover and interpret the interrelations between micro and macro scales.

Our talk reminded me of my experiences when I was taking an Engineering Ethics course in the first year of my bachelor’s degree.  In that course, the instructor was giving us real-life or hypothetical cases expecting us to decide what we would personally do if we encountered an immoral practice in our workplace. The engineering ethics was all about individual decisions, forcing us to ask ourselves questions such as “should I blow the whistle?”. Today I am not sure whether it is the right question to ask given that the whistles to be blown are usually contained in the “black boxes” of expertise to which access is denied even for the experts by an invisible force: compartmentalization of knowledge and specialization in its applications. Perhaps, this means that the question is how to find the whistle rather than whether blowing it or not. In this respect, the STS course can be perceived as an infrastructure aiming for both making visible the ethical and social problems in the area of science and technology and finding the ways of communicating them. In other words, the course seems to me as an infrastructure for not only seeking where the whistle is but also where the problems that call for the whistle lie.

License

Creative Commons Licence

Creator(s)

Contributors

Created date

September 25, 2019

Critical Commentary

This text is a reflection of the interview conducted with Haldun Özaktaş and Emine Öncüler-Yayalar, the instructors of the first STS course opened in Turkey with the initiative of Özaktaş, himself. 

Language

English, British