Between STS and the Sciences

At last weekend’s STS workshop I facilitated a discussion that explored the relations between STS and the sciences. Here are some summary thoughts from that discussion.

We began thinking about the relationship between faculty in the different disciplines—STS/History of science and the various sciences—but quickly shifted focus to students. For many of us, the relationship between STS and the sciences seems to be mediated through students who take classes in both areas. Consequently, we talked about some teaching practices—such as team teaching or peer teaching—and important curricular differences—such as requiring more science coursework.

In general we agreed that one of the goals of STS in the undergraduate program was to get students in the sciences to question what they are doing and why, to disrupt easy notions of fact and reality, and to make the familiar and comfortable both strange and uncomfortable. May of us also thought that STS students should not be separated from the sciences. An STS curriculum without a grounding in science risks losing something important.

Some of the key themes:

  • how are we seen by departmental colleagues differs from how we are seen by science colleagues;
  • students majoring in one of the sciences often take our classes for validation;
  • science faculty rely on us as “story tellers” and the STS as source of stories;
  • courses like “Physics for poets” indicate a broad interest in STS by faculty in the sciences;
  • courses like “Physics for poets” and looking at STS faculty as story tellers was considered problematic by some;
  • we need convince our colleagues to recognize and take seriously our expertise in STS.

The participants represented various departments: anthropology, biology, history, philosophy, and STS. While many of us have appointments in particular departments and teach in STS programs, a few have positions in STS programs. As such, the particularities at our different institutions shaped our discussion. Faculty from institutions with strong STS programs seemed more comfortable with the relationship between STS and the sciences. Faculty at colleges with no STS program or with a particularly strong tradition in the sciences seemed to want to defend STS as on par with the sciences.