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STEM in Society

Human Ingenuity and Human Values

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are powerful products of human ingenuity and skill. But precisely because they are human, STEM disciplines are inseparable from every other aspect of human life. Social, moral, political, even personal values and choices in everyday life impact, and are impacted by, STEM. For example:

  • Brilliant engineering gives us fuel-efficient cars. But a group of brilliant engineers also helped Volkswagen deceive the public into thinking the gas mileage of its diesel cars was better than it was.
  • Life-saving MRI technology depends on the discoveries of nuclear physicists. So does the atom bomb.
  • Mathematical modeling can help predict the results of political elections before they take place. But it’s possible that hearing a prediction about an election can influence voters, thus potentially changing the results of the election!

In this course we will explore some of the many points of intersection between STEM and Society. Topics will include some subset of the following:

  • The nature and importance of scientific methods: is science valuable because of its results? Or because of its methods? Why should we remember, care about, and understand “wrong science” of times past? What’s the difference between science and technology? Between being scientific and being unscientific?
  • Environmental ethics and policy: why (or why not) care about the values of renewability (in resources), sustainability (in systems and institutions), biodiversity and indigenousness (in plants animals humans and landscapes)?
  • Science, technology, and engineering ethics: do experts have special obligations to educate the non-expert public? Do scientists and engineers on research teams have to act as whistleblowers? Should scientists refrain from/pursue discoveries that could be deadly “in the wrong hands”? Is progress for the sake of progress really good? And if not, what is the goal of good science?

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
    • Spot ethical, social, and policy-related concerns that arise in STEM contexts
    • Understand something of the history of science and what distinguishes science from other human ways of knowing
    • Identify reasons given in support of different positions on questions of social, moral, and political importance in STEM contexts

Course Requirements/Examinations

STEM and Society will focus on practicing skills of written and oral discussion and debate. To demonstrate proficiency in these skills students will:

  • Participate in a series of “games” where they will be asked to simulate real-life scenarios where STEM and Society intersect.
  • Engage in a series of written and verbal debate-style activities, where they will be asked to make a case for a point of view on a question for the sake of argument, and then given the opportunity to turn around and speak in favor of contrasting/opposing viewpoints.
  • Complete a final project to produce an op-ed wiki, with each student contributing an editorial on a pertinent topic of their choice, and then engaging in structured commentary on peer editorials.

Credit Hours: 1

Course Instructors

Dr. Kristina Gehrman is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She specializes in ethics and environmental philosophy, and she is especially interested in understanding the thoughts processes people use to make decisions. How do we solve moral dilemmas? Make major life decisions? Etc. And – could philosophy possibly help us to make better decisions? She received her PhD from UCLA.