Science, Technology, Society & Environment (STSE) Education
Welcome! This page – along with my summary of STSE education – provides a general introduction to STSE education, with special emphases on the nature of science & technology (NoST) and problematic relationships among fields of science & technology and societies & environments that likely need to be overcome through sociopolitical actions. STSE education is the first of 3 overall goals of Ontario science curricula.
Actor-Network STSE Relationships
Contrary to ‘isolationist’ and ‘foundationalist’ conceptions of ‘science’ like that depicted here, much research suggests that – as depicted below – fields of science are in 2-way relationships with fields of technology (& engineering) and societies & environments.
Acknowledging STSE relationships seems aligned with actor-network theory (ANT) – which posits dynamic reciprocal relationships among all ‘natural’ & ‘human-engineered’ living, nonliving & symbolic entities (‘actants’).
Power-related STSE Relationships
Although relationships among actants in the world are thought to be co-affecting, and, therefore, perhaps equally-spread across networks, there is much evidence to suggest that they tend to be biased to form assemblages of actants (‘dispositifs‘) that, like machines, generally cooperate to serve certain goals. Among dispositifs, perhaps most important are those servicing capitalists – which, broadly, aim to maximize personal profit, often despite external related harms. Although capitalism exists in different forms around the world, a dominant version is neoliberalism – which, generally, ’employs’ governments (e.g., Brazil, UK, India), supranational organizations (e.g., WTO), think tanks (e.g., Atlas Network), etc. to help align myriad other actants (e.g., technologies; STEM fields; universities; currencies; etc.) so that they accept as normal capitalist values like competitive, possessive, individualism and cost externalization. In that vein, it has been suggested that capitalism is like cancer (here & here).
STSE Harms from ‘Trojan Horses’
A major capitalist tack for wealth concentration appears to involve subterfuge. Often, for example, in promotion of consumerism, for-profit commodities are like Trojan horses, with the commodity often projecting positive, perhaps ‘spectacular,’ semiotic messages – leading consumers to enthusiastically & unquestioningly purchase them (often repeatedly). Often, such idealizations are accomplished through encouragement of simplified or reduced (punctualized) conceptions of the commodity. As depicted in the figure at right/below and in this video, for instance, genetically-engineered (GE) salmon may appear highly abundant. However, if examined more broadly (de-punctualized), consumers may become aware that GE salmon are just one actant within pro-capitalist dispositifs that may, for instance, cause damage to engineered & wild salmon from sea lice that thrive in off-shore cages, high costs because of government-sanctioned (e.g., FDA) patenting of the fish and job losses – often affecting Indigenous people – whose livelihoods depend on wild salmon fishing. Other examples of such consumerism-promoting and problematic subterfuge can be found, besides in examples in the STSE Harms section below, in The Story of Stuff video series.
As suggested by Pedretti & Nazir (2011), goals (and methods) for STSE education are quite varied and, indeed, contested. STS fields have, for example, noted significant roles for pro-capitalist government (de-)regulation in activities of science & technology that are not addressed in Ontario curricula. Although there is such variation and critique about STSE education, a very popular priority is to engage students in argumentative debates about STSE relationships – like, as shown in the figure at right/below, about merits of fast foods – and then determine their personal positions on such STSE (socioscientific) issues. Although foci on debates have merits, given people’s different political positions, over-emphases on personal choice can be highly limiting due, for instance, to capitalists’ protective influences on possibly-incriminating research findings – tacks that can stifle political actions. Consequently, I recommend emphases on STSE Harms and related NoST Education.
Pedagogical Approaches for STSE Education
Among possibilities, I recommend applications of constructivist learning theory – such as the 3-phase STEPWISE schema shown at right/below. Starting in the Students Reflect phase, students should be encouraged – e.g., by evaluating different commodities – to express (e.g., in talking, writing, etc.) their existing STSE-related attitudes, skills & knowledge (ASK). Shortly afterwards, in the Teacher Teaches phase, the teacher should – because of problems with inquiry learning – directly teach curriculum items (e.g., for Ontario) – with special foci on teaching STSE Harms & NoST and examples of others’ RiNA projects. In association with such direct teaching, students should be asked to apply newly-taught ASK through, for example, case methods. In the Students Practise phase, students can be asked to design & conduct RiNA projects to help overcome STSE Harms of their concern – receiving teacher supports, as necessary. When the teachers believes students are ready, they then can be asked to design & conduct RiNA projects without much teacher support.
Summaries of Some STSE Harms
As discussed above, it seems very important to teach students several examples of STSE Harms (STSE relationships linked to harms to wellbeing of individuals, societies and/or environments). The brief descriptions of such harms below are meant to give educators some ideas in this regard.
As the teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has repeatedly advised (e.g., Rolling Stone, Time Magazine & WEF 2020), based on her readings of IPCC reports, humanity is facing an existential risk; that is, a climate emergency – with only about a decade to address devastating and irreversible temperature increases. A group of prominent climate scientists also have published a dire warning to humanity about this. Amounts of atmospheric CO2 can be monitored at the Scripps Institute. As might be expected based on claims above, it appears – e.g., according to Naomi Klein – this emergence is largely due to persistence of pro-capitalist entities in continuing to promote fossil fuel mining & combustion.
Natural and manufactured drugs, such as ASA (for pain & inflammation) and methotrexate (for cancer), respectively, have been very helpful to individuals & societies. As indicated in the video at right, although some drugs (e.g., opiods) have been useful for treating severe pain, aggressive promotion by pharmaceutical companies (among other factors), often with government legal sanctioning, have expanded uses of such drugs so that many people have been harmed or died. Although it may seem obvious to blame drug companies, there are concerns that causes of unhealthy drug uses are more societal – perhaps stimulated largely by capitalist ideologies.
Manufactured Foods & Beverages
Among leading causes of sickness & death in many (technologically ‘advanced’) societies are ailments like cancer, heart disease & diabetes – and, to a great extent, they are caused by government legal support for companies – with few owning most ‘brands’ – to manufacture unhealthy foods & beverages. In addition to perhaps obvious problems with fast foods, processed foods (often in central rows of supermarkets) often are harmful. At the same time, there is much justifiable concern that people in poorer communities and countries have inadequate access to healthy food (i.e., food security). Analyses of food sources & availability can be found via the Nutrition Action Health Letter.
Although mainly in technologically ‘developed’ regions (e.g., G20 nations), electronics devices (e.g., computers, cell phones, televisions, etc.) use many minerals mined in poorer regions of the world. Some of these, such as tin, tungston & tantalum, though, are mined in regions where armed militia abuse miners, their families and others to maximize profits. Big companies, like Apple™ & Google™, apparently use such ‘conflict minerals,’ despite knowing about related abuses. Problems like these are tracked and opposed through organizations like Global Witness.
The air we need to breathe often is not safe! Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, about 7 million people around the world die from air-borne pollutants every year (also see Air Quality Life Index). Much of this comes from burning of fossil fuels which, as you might expect based on comments above, companies – with assistance from government laws – continue to encourage, rather than switching to renewable energy forms. Air pollution is worse, unfortunately, as air temperatures increase – which, again, is tied to government-company supported fossil fuel consumption.
Many of us choose to frequently purchase new clothes to maintain our status as part of a dominant, mainstream, group. This can be highly problematic if the clothes are part of a ‘fast fashion’ movement; that is, frequent cycles of purchasing & disposal of relatively inexpensive clothes that are associated with numerous social & environmental costs – such as poor labour conditions, uses of toxic pesticides and massive additions to landfills. One of the most basic clothing items in such regards are ‘T-shirts,’ as depicted in the video at right/below.
Although petroleum may often be thought of as a fuel, perhaps less often thought of as the major source of climate disruption, it also has affected individuals, societies and environments in terms of its conversion to plastics of various sorts. On the one hand, there are several kinds of plastics that can be made into myriad products or parts of products that people find very helpful. However, there are numerous harms linked to plastics – largely for those that are not biodegradable. In some – still very ubiquitous – cases, they are or can be degraded into micro-fibres found in common commodities and in myriad organisms’ bodies. But, of course, incredible masses of plastic refuse is routinely deposited in most of our environments – and, infamously, have accumulated in large ocean patches, forming ecosystems called ‘the plastisphere.’
Many of us spend much of our spare time being entertained through different forms of popular media (e.g., in television, movies, phone gaming, etc.). These can be informative and stress-reducing. However, to a great extent, many of these represent – as described in the video at right – types of propaganda by powerful individuals (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., corporations). Much such manipulation is accomplished by subliminal aspects of media. To a great extent, such manipulation encourages consumerism, but also particular political views. Particularly vulnerable are children, who are increasing targets of powerful advertisers.
Although products and services generated, in part, by fields of science & technology have been beneficial in many ways, there are growing concerns that living & non-living things are being increasingly connected to form the Internet of Things – which, in turn, appears driven by surveillance capitalism, as stated here. As Dr. Shoshana Zuboff suggests in the video at right, companies mine user data from smart phones, social media, automobiles, fitness tracking devices, (increasingly) living things, etc., etc. to, in a sense, learn about us and engage in behaviour modification processes for profit. Such privacy invasions and manipulation appear, moreover, to be increasing a result of increased online work, etc. due to CoViD-19.
Animal Testing of Commercial Products
Before many manufactured products, particularly those containing potentially-toxic chemicals, are sold to humans, they are tested on animals. But, as shown in the video at right, often such testing is very cruel. Organizations, like PETA, investigate such cruelty and attempt to stop such testing. However, often companies persist – with profit often their motive.
As emphasized by Karl Marx, in their perpetual search for private profit, capitalists work intensely to minimize their costs. Besides using less expensive – often inferior – materials and more efficient technologies, for example, they have typically worked to reduce labour costs. With help from neoliberal capitalism, job losses (e.g., via offshoring) and, recently, increasing precarity (the ‘gig’ economy) seemed to have greatly increased private profits – at expense of social justice (e.g., poverty). Some suggest this is a new, ‘modern,’ form of slavery – a phenomenon that now is being intensely tracked and about which we can explore regarding our lifestyles.
Nature of Science & Technology (NoST) Education
When, as recommended above, directly teaching about STSE relationships, with special foci on STSE Harms, teachers should educate students about STS-based claims about the nature of science & technology (NoST) – which involves education about practitioners and practices within such fields and relationships between them and with other members of societies (e.g., financiers, governments, supranational organizations) and environments.
NoST education, like so many aspects of science & technology education, is quite varied and contested. Years ago, John Ziman (1984) suggested educators consider using the relatively simplistic (e.g., missing references to [a]biotic environments) schema at right/below. His distinction between ‘Internal’ & ‘External’ sociology (and history, philosophy, etc.) of science in that schema seems quite helpful. I believe that science education tends to focus on internal aspects. Indeed, such foci often are considered main aspects of NoST education (e.g., NoST in USA Standards). A typical internalist focus is to learn about uncertainties of experimentation – such as here. However, again following STS research and other knowledge-generation sources indicating seriousness of many problems that relate to External relations involving science & technology strongly suggest merits of STSE education. So, in a sense, NoST and STSE education should be considered ‘two sides of the same coin.’
In addition to people having different foci (e.g., internalist vs. externalist foci), much research indicates that people vary in their conceptions and values about the nature of practices & outcomes in the sciences. Loving (1991), a science educator, developed the Scientific Theory Profile (STP) shown at right/below to capture such diversity of opinion. (Hovering over the text at the end of each continuum in the graphic provides a brief description of different positions.) Although she suggested that people & groups supported different positions around the STP, there seemed to be two opposing ‘camps’; that is, Rationalist-Realists (RR, lower left quadrant) vs. Naturalist-Antirealists (NA, upper right quadrant). From other research, moreover, it is apparent that many teachers, textbook authors, curriculum developers, etc. support RR views (e.g., as here). As elaborated below, on the other hand, many STS scholars and others claim that fields of science often appear relatively Naturalist-Antirealist.
Antirealists - more or less on this spectrum - believe that scientists (& engineers) cannot develop claims (e.g., laws, theories, etc.) that exactly match phenomena of the world.
Rationalists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists' (& engineers') topics & methods (e.g., experiment/study design, measurements, etc.) are highly systematic, logical, unbiased, unemotional, etc.
Realists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists (& engineers) can develop claims (e.g., laws & theories) that match phenomena of the world.
Naturalists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists' (& engineers') topics & methods (e.g., experiment/study design, measurements, etc.) often are, while somewhat systematic & logical, influenced by personal (e.g., emotional) and social (e.g., economic, political, interpersonal, cultural, gender, racial, etc.) factors.
Supports for Naturalist-Antirealist NoST Views
It has been apparent to STS scholars and others for many years that scientists often are – to varying extents – unable to base decisions strictly on logic and data. They often are influenced, for example, by psychological, philosophical, economic, political and other factors. A famous early example was Galileo’s difficulties with the RC Church regarding his heliocentric views. Arguably of most significance, however, have been – and increasingly are – influences from capitalist dispositifs. In his analyses of the sciences, John Ziman (2000), for instance, suggested, as illustrated at right/below, that the profit motive often leads scientists to compromise Merton’s – admittedly often unrealistic – norms of proper practice (CUDOS), tending to engage in more ‘PLACE’ type practices. Such for-profit orientations can, as suggested by Krimsky and others, adversely affect products (e.g., laws, theories & inventions/innovations) of fields of science & technology and, in turn, wellbeing of individuals, societies & environments (as above).
Although, as noted above (e.g., here), there is considerable evidence that influences of capitalist dispositifs on S&T (STEM) fields appears significant and problematic, it also is apparent that pro-capitalist individuals & groups work to suppress (or, in some cases, exploit) more Naturalist-Antirealist NoST (STSE) views. A prime example appears to be pro-capitalist efforts to cast doubts on science research that would incriminate them and their commodities. In parallel with such public sanitation of pro-capitalist S&T/STEM fields appear to be efforts to accomplish similar ends with school students – through, for example, highly reductionist & sanitized STEM education (e.g., Blades et al., 2014; Hoeg & Bencze, 2017).
Where students’ science (& technology) education is being limited to Rationalist-Realist NoST views, it seems that efforts should be made to educate them about more Naturalist-Antirealist views, such as those arising from more sociological STS research (also see here). Such education would, in other words, encompass the Internal & External Sociology (& Psychology, etc.) of Science – while, democratically, not valuing either so that students can decide which to support. In this vein, pedagogical approaches based on constructivist learning theory seem appropriate – such as the NoS Card Exchange Game, in which students are first asked to evaluate statements on cards like at right/below and then attempt to exchange (1-for-1) cards with peers, aiming to increase the proportion of cards in their hands that align with their NoST views. After doing so, the teacher could explain the STP and, then, urge students to apply positions to which they agree in different application activities – such as analyses & evaluation of STSE relationships in case methods.
Links to STEPWISE Framework Elements:
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