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Students in VTSS find there are actually jobs for them out there

STANFORD -- Twenty years ago, Patrick Windham, then a student at Stanford, learned to analyze how science and technology interact with society. Today, he is writing federal legislation on technology and science policies.

Windham, a leading staff member of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, helped set up the Stanford interdisciplinary program Values, Technology, Science and Society in 1971, and was the first student to graduate from it in 1973.

"There are many important jobs on the boundary of science and technology on the one hand, and business, government and society on the other hand," Windham said in a recent speech to the 15 graduating students and their relatives at the 20th graduation ceremony of the program.

"Our first graduate is applying exactly the mixture of disciplines to science and technology policy that we hoped would be useful when we set up this program," said Walter Vincenti, Stanford professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering, who is one of the founders and currently chairman of the program.

An undergraduate program offering a bachelor of arts, bachelor of science and an honors degree, Values, Technology, Science and Society investigates how science and technology have influenced human society throughout history and how societies have, in turn, shaped science and technology. It also teaches students to examine ethical issues that arise in the practice of engineering and science.

How long is it appropriate to extend life support to comatose patients? How should new manufacturing equipment be designed to balance skilled, safe jobs with high productivity? How "private" are electronic-mail messages? Does the right to privacy warrant banning robotic dialing machines that call people to generate sales? Are computer files covered under the Freedom of Information Act? How can we ethically test a future AIDS vaccine in humans?

To help think through the political, economic and ethical implications of such questions, the world needs more programs like VTSS, Windham said. This fall, the VTSS program will change its name to STS (for Science, Technology and Society). Cornell and MIT have elevated their STS programs to departmental status, and with researchers in Europe, Canada and Australia, "STS is gradually evolving into an identifiable international community of scholars," Vincenti said.

Such programs teach students to analyze these predicaments from various points of view and explain to people the benefits and risks of new technologies, Windham said.

"Whatever job you will take, the problems are complex and the choices bewildering, and you must understand technology to avoid slipping into simplistic positions," he said.

While technological advances have changed society profoundly, society also shapes technology, said Robert McGinn, a professor in the industrial engineering department and associate chairman of the Stanford program. Not everything that is technically possible gets accepted without qualification, and once-accepted technologies can fall out of favor for economic, environmental or safety reasons, he said.

For example, Sweden will decommission all its nuclear power plants by the year 2005, Germany has placed rigorous limits on genetic engineering, and the U.S. Congress in 1971 voted to cease further funding for the development of a commercial supersonic airplane.

Though placing selective limits on individual technological possibilities may become more important in today's populous societies as more is learned about their effects, McGinn said that historically some societies have already done so, usually in an all-or-nothing fashion.

For example, in the 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese introduced the musket into a Japanese society that used elaborate metal processing techniques to manufacture swords. The gun spread so quickly that Japan soon became an arms exporter.

Its fortune changed, however, when lowly, musket-wielding peasants started shooting aristocratic samurai warriors armed with swords. Fearing that the peasants were undermining their social status, the samurai prevailed on the shogun to phase out production of guns.

In 1855, a year after Commodore Perry "opened" Japan, a U.S. Navy commander made fun of the Japanese, taking their "ignorance of firearms" as a sign of "primitive innocence and Arcadian simplicity." In fact, the Japanese had deliberately given up the guns to preserve their hierarchical social structure and the spiritual value of the sword.

"The interplay of technologies and societies is certainly different, but even more important today," McGinn said. "We are educating our students to be sensitive analysts of that critical relationship. Patrick Windham is an excellent example for them to emulate."

Though the program does not train students for specific positions, most of its graduates continue on to law, education, medical, public policy or business school; some enter public service.

The program moved into the School of Engineering last fall, after having been an inter-school program reporting to the provost's office for many years. To guide that transition, Vincenti, who had retired in 1983, agreed to head the program for the third time.

"I will shepherd the program into the School of Engineering, since by now I know people and my way around there," said Vincenti, who graduated from Stanford in 1938 and returned as a professor in 1957.

McGinn believes that moving into the School of Engineering offers new opportunities for valuable research and teaching about science and technology in society. He expects that his work on ethical issues in engineering will benefit from interaction with his engineering colleagues.

"At this point, historical and ethical studies of engineering in society remains an underdeveloped area of scholarship," he said. "We hope to change that."

Though the program started as what Vincenti called a "grass-roots" operation and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, early financial constraints may even have helped. Keeping a low profile and attracting professors who were motivated only by their intellectual interest rather than by new funds, Values, Technology, Science and Society gradually earned respect as intellectually stimulating for faculty and academically demanding for students.

"Faculty involved in the program have made significant contributions to the study of science and technology in society from various disciplines. We introduce some of that research in our core courses, exposing students to state-of-the-art scholarship," McGinn said.

Program faculty come from the Schools of Law and Engineering, and the Departments of English, History, Computer Science, Anthropology and Economics.

While being housed in the School of Engineering will put VTSS on stable administrative footing, Vincenti insists that the program must stay truly interdisciplinary and involve teachers and students from other schools.

"We are in engineering, not of engineering," he said.

Because they are powerful driving forces for change in historic and contemporary societies, Vincenti said, courses teaching the history of Western culture should include more study of technology and science.

"Some of these courses are trying to play Hamlet without the prince, so we decided to put the prince in," he said.

Weaving together knowledge about technological advances and about their interactions with society is hard work if one goes beyond just offering an umbrella under which everyone teaches his or her field, he said. Vincenti and other faculty in the program have worked closely together for years, learning each other's vocabularies and ideas to create an interdisciplinary curriculum.

"You can sit in the faculty club and talk across your disciplinary boundaries until the cows come home, but you don't really come down to cases until you try to teach a course together," he said. "That drives you to a depth of discussion not found in casual conversation."

The participants' motto was "making a compound, not a mixture," and they could offer courses representing such compounds only because they had made the new compound in themselves.

"Though hard work, it was a wonderful intellectual exercise for us that I would not trade for anything," Vincenti said.

That collaboration also has spun off scholarly books that are recognized and used by researchers in other disciplines, such as Vincenti's What Engineers Know and How They Know It: Analytical Studies from Aeronautical History, the first book that approaches the history of engineering not as a history of things, but of ideas.

Another example is the technological history of the piano Giraffes, Black Dragons and Other Pianos by Edwin Good, a professor emeritus of religious studies, who also is a concert pianist. He became interested in the piano as a machine while teaching in Values, Technology, Science and Society.

Robert McGinn has written Science, Technology and Society, one of the most widely used texts in the field. Nathan Rosenberg, professor of economics and Vincenti collaborated in writing The Britannia Bridge, a study of the generation and diffusion of the knowledge embodied in the first tubular, wrought-iron bridge.

Jim Adams, professor of mechanical engineering and a former chairman of the program, has written Flying Buttresses, Entropy and O- Rings, a work that vividly describes the worklife and activities of the professional engineer.


This story was written by Gabrielle Strobel, a science writing intern at the Stanford News Service.


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