STS: A Department in Disarray?

    By Parissa Joukar

    Fourth-year aerospace engineering major, Arman Mottaghi, wrote his thesis on alienation felt by African American engineering students. Out of the people he conducted interviews with, 63% felt the College of Arts and Sciences was more diverse, inclusive and engaging. This finding led Arman to assemble a meeting between students and faculty within and outside of the engineering school to facilitate a discussion regarding the potential for Science, Technology and Society (STS) courses—specifically STS 1500, which is powerful in that it reaches all engineering students—to remedy issues of exclusivity and narrow-mindedness that plague the engineering department.

    As a former e-schooler who still receives emails from the department, I was notified and immediately knew I had to attend for two reasons: first, STS 1500 was the only course I found engaging, worthwhile and meaningful during my year in the e-school and second, I have many issues with the structure of engineering courses.

    The 20 person panel consisted of the following administrators: Chair of the Department of Engineering and Society W. Bernard Carlson, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion John Gates, Director of Undergraduate Success Lisa Lampe, and Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Maite Brandt-Pierce. Arman began by giving a brief introduction highlighting the statistic mentioned above, then opened the floor to anyone who wanted to comment on STS courses—their role, successes and failures, and potential.

    “Part of the issue is engineering students are encouraged to see themselves as observers [as opposed to members] of society,” fourth-year computer science student Petar Duric said. “When we are studying STS, we are [actually] studying ourselves.”

    Sepehr Zomorodi, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major, suggested that STS courses should be made more available to students outside of the engineering school.

    “Everyone that has been in my [STS] class has been an engineering student. I’m curious as to why there aren’t students from the College. Technical trends are important for all members of society to understand,” Sepehr said.

    Professor Carlson confirmed that all STS courses are, in fact, available to College students, and that a science and society course is required of all undergraduate students. However, issues regarding class size and scheduling were brought up, with mention of a need to expand the STS department since engineering students have difficulty getting into classes as is.

    A first-year engineering student vocalized her concerns with STS 1500, saying “I found it interesting, but wondered why every engineering student was required to take it. It was mostly about Western white guys. Could we offer more options?”

    Daniel Chen, a fourth-year STS major conducted a study on the STS program at the 4500 and 4600 levels, which included 46 interviews with the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) class of 2016 students. His findings showed that a devaluation of STS was common. According to Daniel, those who enjoyed STS “would preface their appreciation with something like ‘and by the way, this isn’t the norm. I’m an anomaly.’”

    Dean Brandt-Pierce displayed results from the most recent alumni survey regarding STS. Of the 393 people interviewed, only 9% believed STS was “not important to my life”, while 37% believed it “adequately prepared” them for and was “important to my life”.

    “It doesn’t surprise me that people get it once they step out of the academic bubble here,” Sepehr commented, emphasizing how necessary it is for people to encounter the ‘real world’.

    “There’s this pervasive attitude that everyone hates STS, so [those who like it] don’t talk about it for fear of being outed. I get it. [Engineers] don’t want to talk about religion. They don’t want to talk about race. They’re engineers. They don’t know how to talk about it,” remarked assistant STS professor Sean Ferguson, concluding with the point that there is a fundamental difference between what engineers like and what they need to learn.

    Some suggested making the curriculum more interdisciplinary. I was reminded of a powerful statement made by my African American Studies professor, Sabrina Pendergrass: “What’s the point of having the best doctors and engineers if they don’t know the first thing about values like justice, fairness, and equality?” UVa engineering grads can do a stellar job at pitching a product, but can they coherently speak about structural racism, women and the male gaze, the intersectionality of mechanical reproduction and capitalism, etc?

    Dean Gates found it worth clarifying that the goal of UVa engineering is a simple one: “We are producing global engineering leaders.” Some had issues with this statement, describing it as alienating and meaningless. Dean Gates, however, finds it compelling, especially for minorities like himself, articulating that, “Global means that we are connected to the world. Leadership implies stepping outside of our normative spaces. It gives students a sense of why they’re here, evoking the true nature of UVa.”

    But Petar didn’t find this all too convincing, pointing out potential corporate implications of the proposition. “The mere fact that this institution was founded by the richest slave-owner is indicative of the cross-pollination of corporation and academia,” he said.

    Issues regarding a disconnect within and between STS courses were also discussed. Some expressed that if the classes built off of each other, and if lecture and discussion were more cohesive, students would have less difficulty paying attention and would find immediate value in the course material. Others, like Sepehr, explained that they had easily identified a continuity.

    Above all, what the curriculum lacks is human interaction. All classes within the engineering school are short and held in large lecture halls consisting of hundreds of people. This is great for mass producing “global engineering leaders”, but not so great for providing a meaningful college experience.

    If these structural issues were corrected, exclusivity and narrow-mindedness would fall apart at the seams, and students would benefit as humans rather than just engineering students.



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