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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Science, Technology and Society: a major for the 21st century

Shortly after midnight on Dec. 3, 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, accidentally released about 40 metric tons of methyl isocyanate into the air. The toxic fumes drifted into a community of squatters living just outside the plant's boundary a situation that would have been unimaginable in the United States and continued toward the heart of the city, about three miles away.

More than 2,000 people died; an estimated 200,000 were injured. But what went wrong at the plant probably had less to do with the technology, which was state-of-the-art, than with how the plant was run and regulated, as well as with the community's lack of preparedness, said Professor Robert McGinn of the Management Science and Engineering Department.

While Union Carbide Corp., the plant's parent company, successfully transferred the technology to its Indian subsidiary, the skills and processes for using it safely were given insufficient attention, according to McGinn.

"There were a lot of things that failed to get transferred: for example, the idea that one does costly preventive maintenance upstream to diminish the chances of more costly disasters downstream, and the idea that it is essential that a buffer zone be established and maintained around a plant manufacturing potentially lethal substances. There is much talk these days in engineering about DFM design for manufacturability. Perhaps there should also be talk about DFSRTT design for socially responsible technology transfer."

But this is exactly the type of subject that gets explored at length in Stanford's Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), which McGinn co-chairs with history Professor Paula Findlen. Undergraduates in the STS program not only learn about hard science and engineering, but also study how the sciences, technology and engineering are related and affect the way people live, work and interact.

"STS encourages students to internalize a comprehensive and systemic way of thinking about technology and science in society not just in terms of politics and economics, but also in terms of ethical and cultural aspects," McGinn said. "By studying how science and technology have developed in society in the past and present, students derive lessons useful for avoiding similar mistakes in the future."

This year marks the 30th anniversary of STS. It's a remarkable fact given that, for its 25th anniversary, the long-running interdisciplinary program was on the rocks. In 1996, then-School of Engineering Dean James Gibbons announced that he would not be seeking renewal of the program's authority to grant degrees. But after an outpouring of student support a "Save STS!" petition garnered more than 2,300 undergraduate signatures the Committee on Undergraduate Studies declined to endorse the dean's recommendation, and the program was saved.

These days STS looks stronger than ever: It boasts 51 declared undergraduate majors the most in the program's history and over the past four years has graduated 47 students. Five new courses are being developed with the help of a special grant from the Harris Foundation. And, in 1999, STS collaborated with the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology to jointly hire a new assistant professor, Sarah Jain. Meanwhile, STS continues to bring a steady stream of visiting professors, professionals and post-doctoral lecturers to the university to develop and teach courses and work with honors students in the program.


STS graduates praise program

"Straight out of school, STS was such a great way to get a job," said Sarah Stanwyck, 27, who graduated in 1995. "During the interview process, they loved the fact that I was an STS major even though they had never heard of it before."

Her first project at the prominent accounting and consulting firm of Deloitte & Touche, where she was hired shortly before graduating and worked as a systems analyst, involved helping a team of sales representatives adopt a new sales system.

"It took understanding the society of salespeople, as well as the technology they were dealing with and how to translate people's frustrations into better technology," she said. "There's often tension between marketing and engineering departments in high-tech companies. We all need each other, but it's oftentimes difficult for one group to talk to the other in a way in which they're both speaking the same language."

Other STS graduates working toward master's and doctoral degrees also had high praise for the program.

"My [STS] background was a major reason my program chair brought me to Penn, and I'm still using it," said Colleen Terrell, who is in her final year of pursuing a doctorate in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Diego Rodriguez, who graduated from Stanford in 1993 with bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering and STS, just earned his MBA from Harvard Business School and will soon begin his new job as brand manager at Intuit, one of world's top financial-software manufacturers.

"Although Stanford's enlightened engineering curriculum produces culturally literate engineers, I believe the liberal arts education I received through the STS program gave me an enhanced set of critical thinking and communication skills," Rodriguez said.


From VTS to STS

The STS program (originally called VTS, the Program in Values, Technology and Society) was launched in 1971 by the religious studies scholar William Clebsch, philosopher Philip Rhinelander and engineers Walter Vincenti and Stephen Kline. While there was no dearth of research in the sciences and engineering, they wanted to promote more inquiry into how these forces shaped and transformed society.

"Not only is Stanford situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, but really Stanford, as an institution, has played an important role in the history of 20th-century science," Findlen said. "The university has also been a key contributor to the growth of technology in post-war America, and is strongly situated to have a program that takes a multi-dimensional view."

University and college programs that focus on the relationship between science, technology and society have been on the rise nationwide. There are now STS programs at MIT, Cornell, Penn State, North Carolina State University, Vassar, Virginia Tech and the Claremont Colleges, among others, and abroad at schools such as York University in Canada, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the universities of Wollongong and New South Wales in Australia. .

While many such programs offer bachelor of arts degrees or the equivalent, Stanford's is one of the very few if not the only one that also offers a bachelor of science degrees. And while many STS programs focuses almost exclusively on the history, policy and social ramifications of science, Stanford's also requires an understanding of hard science fulfillment of a technical-literacy requirement for students pursing a B.A. and a technical-depth requirement for those pursing a B.S. McGinn said he believes this balance is both distinctive to Stanford's program and makes it attractive to students and faculty.

"[STS] was one of the best things I did at Stanford," said Edmond Toy, who graduated in 1993 and is now working toward his doctorate at Harvard's Program for Health Policy. "It helped me appreciate that fact that practically all of the most important issues facing policy-makers are interdisciplinary."

Now, 30 years after its inception, STS, which started in the equivalent of one of those famous Silicon Valley garages, has become a distinctive feature of the university's academic landscape.

"STS has been percolating up from below for three decades," McGinn said. "Finally it is a major whose time has come."


By John Sanford

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