19 Aug 2013

Social responsibility: Practical solutions for the science curricula

Social responsibility in the science curriculaCivics and social responsibility have traditionally been considered a mainstay of the humanities subjects, where these topics easily became an underlying theme of lectures in history, law and literature. Where science lectures may have predominantly raised questions related only to scientific methodology, they are now beginning to explore solutions to practical problems that citizens, and ultimately, entire societies face. This post offers practical advice on exploring issues of social relevance within a science framework.

A brief history: two schools of science education

Prior to the 1970s, science learning within higher education institutions was predominantly a discipline-focused approach with minimal mention of science as a potential social and cultural force. In the decade following, however, the educational focus began to shift: the relatively recent advent and focus on topics in bioethics, as well as other science-related issues with social relevance, had created a new intellectual environment. By the 1980s, reformers were intent on ensuring that social responsibility, in a contemporary sense, involved using science to transform society. There were, of course, critics of this issue-oriented approach to science who argued mostly that it betrayed the structural integrity of science. Near the century’s end, however, there was widespread recognition that social responsibility had a place in the science lecture hall.

 

Integrating issues of social relevance

The higher education professional, often balancing teaching responsibilities with duties at the lab-bench, may find considering the societal relevance of applied science to be burdensome. In practical terms, measures of effective teaching are best indicated by a student’s skill in the laboratory or merely by comprehension (eg techniques at the lab-bench, or getting to grips with increasingly complex theorems and hypotheses). With this in mind, educators have found that the best approach is to convince faculties that these topics are worthy of their own courses, as supplementary to the main degree curricula. Where this simply isn’t possible, consider the following ways of integrating social responsibility into the existing curricula:

1. Frame social issues through public engagement

Several universities within the UK have embarked on initiatives, including ‘lunchtime’ lectures and public workshops, which are usually organised and delivered by higher education students. These events provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their ability to communicate their work to the public, a skill which is becoming increasingly important on applications to graduate education (including Doctoral programmes). Such initiatives involve reconsidering current research through the lens of its potential social impact; and then condensing and discussing these social issues.

2.  Encourage regular submissions to science policy journals

Drafting of ‘Letters to the Editor’ as a supplementary assignment promotes the understanding of research within a wider societal framework. Such coursework may not be required, but can form a highly-beneficial addition to the main science curricula for students who opt to complete them. Alternatively, contributions to online newspapers and other easily-accessible sources of science journalism (eg magazines such as Scientific American or Wired) have the further incentive of a by-line for students – something all the more attractive to those considering a career in science communication.

3.  Make alternative, science policy-based work placements visible

In the midst of flyers for graduate research programmes, science policy placements are often not as apparent. The Wellcome Trust, for instance, provides internships in biomedical research as well as policy, and is one of several institutions within the UK which is offering the latter work placement. Research similar opportunities in your area to determine which internships or placements may provide comparable benefit to your students. Take steps to publicise these by inviting key personnel to deliver an introductory lecture to these placements, or hold workshops to facilitate Q&A sessions regarding what these programmes entail.

Increasing demands on academic faculty sometimes necessitate an elimination of activities seen to be extracurricular. In basic science courses, such an attitude has often led to the relegation of science communication, which is often considered a softer topic that offers little in the way of rigorous scientific discourse. The modern intersection of human progress with scientific advancement and understanding in topics such as climate change and the applications of biotechnology, however, has arguably never made these discussions more relevant.

 
 
By Shivani Lamba, Brightlobe, the UK