Linking Science and Social Issues

Why Is This Course a SENCER Model?

The course explores both the substance of nanoscience and nanotechnology and the social/cultural aspects and implications of it. Nanotechnology (NT) research has been the beneficiary of a level of government funding not seen since the Manhattan Project and the moon-shot program. Such generous and focused funding has attracted the attention of both enthusiasts and skeptics, each of whom could influence the technology's future trajectory. Advocates generate public support and draw students into the field by touting the new technology's societal benefits, which may include the ability to enhance human performance, transform manufacturing, provide cheap, clean energy, and shrink computers to nanoscopic dimensions. However, enthusiastic claims can also serve to create outsized expectations that may be difficult to meet in the near-term. Some critics raise legitimate concerns about unintended negative consequences, such as the technology's potential to cause disease or social disruption, which could influence applications developers and policy makers to develop practices and policies that avoid these problems. Even more adamant critics attract media attention by instilling fear and undermining public confidence in NT with unlikely doomsday scenarios.

Because so many of nanotechnologies benefits and consequences are still unrealized, it offers rich opportunities for both science learning and civic reflection. Distinguishing the actual fact from the speculative images, and the possible technologies from the improbable outcomes, requires a technical understanding of NT. Sorting out and responsibly evaluating the concerns about social disruption or inequity requires understanding scientific and technical research as a social and political process. By combining these skills in theclassroom we hope to cultivate a critical and civil discussion of science and technology in an emerging field amongst a younger generation. This project combines the content of NT, (e.g., the methods of visualization, experimentation, manufacture, and the evaluation of what is and is not technically feasible) with the social context of NT (issues of ethics, regulation, risk assessment, history, funding, intellectual property, controversy and conflict). We target a broad range of students because today's undergraduates are tomorrow's producers and consumers of NT applications. They will also become the civic leaders, regulators or policy makers that will influence NT's future trajectory.

What Teaching and Learning Strategies Are Used to Connect the Science Content to the Civic Context?

Glossaries: Each week, students submit a one-page definition of two technical terms from the readings and class discussions such that by the end of the course, each student has produced a glossary of 30 concepts specific to NT. The glossary entries are graded for technical accuracy and articulation of social context.

Quizzes: A brief quiz is administered at the end of each theme to assess the students' understanding of the content of that theme. Students are given a set of mandatory questions, which address both content and context, and asked to choose from among several other questions. In this way, no student avoids being assessed on material from the less familiar aspect of the course (i.e., science student must answer questions about social aspects and vice versa), yet they get a chance to play to their strengths.

Role-play exercise: This capstone experience requires the student to adopt the role of an actor in society, research the likely viewpoint of that actor with respect to a scenario involving the potential impact of nanotechnology on a local community, and articulate that viewpoint through written and oral testimony at a city council meeting. Students are assessed on the depth of their research, as well as the clarity and impact of their appeals.

Web Site: The course's Web Site (Nanotechnology: Content and Context (Anth 235/Chem 235)) features news items, articles, and other interesting links that relate to nanotechnology, an electronic discussion list, and an e-bulletin board. All class materials, including many of the course readings, are available through the site.

Participation: Preparation for, and involvement in, classroom discussion and experimental activities are a significant portion of the student's grade.

What Capacious Civic Questions or Problems Are Addressed in the Course and How They Are Linked to the Science Content?


Glossary Assignment

Here's a few definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary to get you thinking about what it means to write a gloss on a term, and to collect those glosses into a glossary.

gloss, v.

a. trans. To insert glosses or comments on; to comment upon, explain, interpret
b. intr. To introduce a gloss, comment, or explanation upon a word or passage in a text. Also in wider sense, to make comments or remarks (esp.
unfavourable ones) upon a person's words or actions.

glossary n.

1. A collection of glosses; a list with explanations of abstruse, antiquated, dialectal, or technical terms; a partial dictionary. 1696 Phil. Trans. XIX. 264. The Glossary, at the end, is not only an Account of Words and Phrases, but also an explication of ancient Customs, Laws, and Manners.

Over the semester, students will make a glossary for themselves of terms and phrases central to each the texts we are reading on nanotechnology, culture and society: such as buckministerfullerene, molecular manufacturing, risk perception, posthumanism, convergence, scale effects and so on. The entries in the glossary should define what these things are, but also elaborate on and comment on the significance of these things - historically, economically, culturally, personally.

There must be at least one entry for each week's readings/lectures, and each entry should be approximately a page long. While the entry should draw on the reading/lectures, students are encouraged to look around for examples and illustrations from the world around them.

Illustrating terms is not limited to writing about them, you may use whatever mode you can think of. This is meant to be a creative exercise in exploring different orders and modes of definition so that you define terms in your own way, with your own words or pictures.

Due: Every Tuesday, In Class

Role Playing Assignment

More information later in the semester...

Readings and Quizzes

Assignment #1: Writing a Book Review of Prey

Choose one of the following:

1. You are a science journalist, working for the Houston Chronicle, and you are assigned to write a review of Prey for the science section
assessing the scientific content of the novel and/or the representation of science in the novel.

2. You are on the Society and Culture beat at the Houston Press, and you have been assigned to write a review of Prey for a special section
cleverly titled (by your editor) "New Disasters in Fiction." Write a review assessing the novel's vision of culture and society, and the role of science in it.

Reviews are 1000 words, they do not contain spoilers, and they do not
summarize the book.

Feel free to use outside sources, as long as you cite them (but beware that since this is a review, you have limited space to insert quotations).

Here are a handful of reviews of Prey to give you a sense of how others have reviewed the book:

1. Nanotechnology Now's Prey review
2. "The Future Needs Us!" Prey review

Due: Aug 31 in Class