Preparing people to be informed participants in political debates about science, technology, and social change

(part of the Spring 2014 Collaborative Explorations: Science in a Changing World series)

A Collaborative Exploration (CE) in which participants develop activities, lessons, or outreach that prepare people to be informed participants in political debates about science, technology, and social change.
  • In brief, CEs are an extension of Problem- or Project-Based Learning (PBL) and related approaches to education in which participants address a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry and developing their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word). (For more background, read the prospectus.)
  • If you want to know what a CE requires of you, review the expectations and mechanics.
    • on hangout for 1 hour each week in April at time to be determined (6pm Tuesdays, April 8, 15, 22, 29). The URL for the first hangout will be provided only to those who register (via, which entails making a commitment to attend that 1st session and at least 2 of the other 3 hangouts.
  • Intended outcomes for participants of this CE are of two kinds:
    • a) tangible: an activity or lesson plan designed to prepare people to be informed participants in political debates about science, technology, and social change; and
    • b) experiential: being impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using the CE structure to motivate and connect participants.
  • If you are wondering how to define a meaningful and useful approach to the topic, let us present a scenario for the CE and hope this stimulates you to apply to participate. We will then let CE participants judge for themselves whether their inquiries are relevant.

Some years ago a multi-disciplinary group of professors at UMass Boston found themselves discussing their concerns about a range of somewhat related topics: CO2 increases and Arctic ice decreases were reported as greater than the most pessimistic predictions of the IPCC; funding of science and technology research seemed increasingly tied to direct payoffs for economic growth; environmentalists were divided about whether to join forces with industry groups to promote technological initiatives that might address climate change or to push for wider democratic debate about how society responds to environmental issues. This wide-ranging exchange led to discussion about how to prepare students to be informed participants in debates about the direction(s) that science and technology take in this era of global climate and environmental change. They were keen to get ideas about curriculum units that might be taken up within the disciplines, such as in history, economics, management, accounting, physics, biology, environmental science, English, computer science, etc. What they were looking for was well-framed units that would make students--and instructors--in the disciplines address questions about how science and technology are governed or given direction in modern Western political systems. (Indeed, the multidisciplinary group of professors was meeting around the topic of "Who shapes the directions of science and technology?") These professors remained interested in the issue, but they came to see their concerns as about not only education, but also civic engagement: How to teach and engage students and members of surrounding communities to participate in questioning and shaping the direction of scientific and social changes, where such changes include health as well as environmental issues. They understand, of course, that it is ultimately their job to develop and modify courses as well as to be involved with wider communities. In that spirit, they seek stimulation from others, not polished products, which makes the circumscribed amount of time in a case--4 weeks--about right.

One way to make their request manageable is for participants in this case to focus on some angle that really interests you and to provide resources of a form that will help you as well. If you can see yourself teaching soon, you might want to prepare lesson plans that could also be taken up by you as well as by UMass professors in some discipline. But if teaching anytime soon seems unlikely, you may want to assemble available syllabi connected to your angle, or examples of university-community co-teaching/learning around science issues, or case studies, web sites, and so on. Alternatively, you might develop a pilot process for community engagement (such as a "public conversation," "stake-holder meeting," blog, and so on).