Initial Publication Date: November 25, 2020

Translating STEM, Integrating Values

Rebecca (Becky) Bates, Minnesota State University, Mankato and Alexandra Bradner, Kenyon College

Part 1: What Would a STEM Communications Concentration Look Like at a Liberal Arts College?


Translating across disciplines, which are often identified by their different styles of reasoning, is challenging, but responsible citizenship requires the use of multiple perspectives to solve problems. Our translation goal is to value what other disciplines already do and know, and find pathways to incorporate that knowledge both within and outside STEM. This team has considered these translational challenges from both a liberal arts perspective and an engineering/science perspective, and have connected both to the use of narrative and story. We present two credentials in STEM communications and in ethics that help students learn the skills of translation, while practicing integration.

1) Our first credential imagines what a STEM communications concentration would look like at a liberal arts college, an institution with no existing courses in technical writing, journalism, or graphics, and no faculty members dedicated exclusively to the concentration. We address the question of whether we can retain the liberal arts college focus on big ideas and fundamental skills, while attending to the student demand for more transactional credentials. The proposed concentration argues that we need not conceptualize such programs as moral compromises. A STEM communication concentration can be conceptualized as a response to an urgent social need, the need for broader STEM literacy, and the course of study need not focus solely upon skill development. The proposed concentration is both ideas- and imagination-based.

2) The second is a series of seminars and experiences in ethical learning that translates humanistic foundational knowledge into the STEM realm related to 1) conducting research responsibly, 2) the historical underpinnings of science and engineering in society, and 3) personal decision making for people with STEM careers to formally complement the experiences of STEM majors. Seminars will take advantage of existing resources and can be embedded in individual courses, in programs across years, or in a year or semester across disciplines. Experiences can be tailored for local resources. Credentialling activities and assessment guidelines are [will be] made publicly available through the Online Ethics Center.Program Details »


STEM communications departments at large institutions teach students how to clearly and accurately communicate STEM content to a general audience both verbally and visually. They offer courses in technical writing, public relations, and information graphics, among many other subjects. The curriculum is designed to shoulder the training burden that used to be supported by employers. Students complete their coursework and glide into careers in industry and hospital PR, academic grant writing, textbook publishing, political lobbying, consulting, textbook publishing, and science journalism. Many students pursue graduate degrees in technical communication, communication studies, public relations, and marketing. The academic course of study is backwards designed to support the market.

Small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) are devoted to a different ideal. They operate under the assumption that there is something intrinsically valuable about learning. At the college level, what someone learns should be driven by their own curiosity and wonder. There may be courses in English literature, but no courses in communications; courses in economics, but no courses in business; courses in math and logic, but no courses in computer programming; courses in psychometrics, but no courses in data science. Students leave school with foundational skills that are useful in any career—permanently relevant skills that can respond flexibly to technological and social change. Good writing, reading, critical thinking, discussion, research, observational, math, and statistical skills are never obsolete.

According to the popular press, however, as the job market becomes increasingly competitive, as student loan burdens increase, and as wages fall, students and their families are questioning whether it is worth the national-average, four-year SLAC layout of $100,000 to maintain this ideal. They are looking for assurances that their investment in intrinsic value will have some instrumental value. Will the kids get jobs?

To some extent, the difference between these two forms of higher education is a false dichotomy. Students at larger institutions manage to develop critical thinking skills, and SLAC students are very successful on the job market. These differences are further elided when, in curricular design, we attend to societal need. Instead of feeding the market or indulging the individual, institutions of higher ed should conceptualize their curricular shifts as responses to emergent social needs. SLACs might conceive of a new concentration in STEM communication not as a bow to the consumerist/transactional model of education, but as a form of national service—a response to the current crisis in science literacy.

What would a STEM communications concentration look like at a SLAC, where, at present, there are no journalism, technical writing, and communications courses? How might resource-strapped SLACs capitalize upon their *existing* courses and faculty to build such a program? Could the institution fulfill the societal need, while retaining its deep commitment to the self-determination of individual learners?

This proposal argues that when creating a new academic program at a SLAC, we should view the development of marketable skills not as unimportant, but as secondary to both the interrogation of ideas and the responsiveness to social need. The concentration below is designed to train students not only to write clearly, but to have something insightful, socially responsible, and artful to say. The program is ideas- and imagination-based, centered on the goal of helping students to develop good judgement.


The undergraduate concentration in STEM communication (CSC) welcomes students from both within and outside of the STEM fields. There are two paths through the concentration: a Translations track, for students with political, journalistic, or academic aspirations, which requires a significant investment in one particular STEM discipline, and an Expressions track, for students with creative aspirations, which requires a minimum of two STEM courses (in addition to the college's diversification requirement).

Throughout the course of this interdisciplinary concentration, students learn to consider STEM theories, models, results, and practices in conversation with other disciplines. In addition to completing the three-course core in STEM communication, students can take courses in three distribution areas:

  • Literature and science, where students analyze significant texts in the humanities that explore scientific themes
  • Science and technology studies (STS), where students learn the history, philosophy, and sociology of science
  • Creative arts, where students strive to develop a singular voice in the production of original creative work

In the senior year, students work closely with two faculty advisors, one from a STEM field and one from outside of STEM, to produce for publication a work of original STEM communication, i.e., a magazine article, fiction or non-fiction book, art exhibit, video, podcast, series of infographics, grant, press release, website, etc.

A more detailed account of the course of study can be found on the "Exemplar Page."

Goals of the Program

The goals of the program are three-fold: (1) To create a defined learning space for students who find that their academic interests fall somewhere in between STEM, on the one hand, and the humanities, social sciences, and arts, on the other, but cannot double major. (2) To continue to articulate that novel translation space, in which different disciplines come together to theorize the natural world. (3) To send into the public sphere STEM-literate college graduates who can effectively communicate the significance of complex theories, models, and data sets to the general citizenry, which needs that knowledge in order to make good decisions.

Learning Goals

  • Learning Goal 1: Proficiency
    To experiment with and develop advanced skills in a plurality of STEM communication modalities: writing, drawing, information graphics, filming, podcasting, etc. To produce STEM content that is clear, accurate, audience-appropriate, and socially responsible.
  • Learning Goal 2: Integration
    To consider STEM content from within its various social-political, historical, and philosophical contexts. To see how STEM raises problems for its society, practitioners, and users to solve that cannot be fully addressed by its own internal practices of observation, experimental design, and testing. To view STEM content through an interdisciplinary lens.
  • Learning Goal 3: Creation
    To formulate original responses to important canonical and non-canonical texts in and about STEM. To locate a distinctive creative voice. To say new things in new ways, and deliver new ideas into the world.
  • Learning Goal 4: Action
    To recognize the ways in which the social and epistemic forms of power and privilege both within and outside of the STEM disciplines operate. To examine the effects such forms of power and privilege have both on the products, practitioners, and practices of STEM and on the broader social world. To imagine the ways in which STEM communicators might act to shift these forms of power and privilege, and to reflect upon on the potential impact of that action.

Assessing Program Outcomes

Assessment will take place after senior grades have been awarded and before graduation, and will focus on work completed within the concentration's core courses. Students take CSC 200: Introduction to STEM Communications early in their college careers and then CSC 400: Senior Seminar in STEM Communications during their senior year. Students will load into a LMS portfolio their first paper from CSC 200 and the proposal for their final project from CSC 400, after which they will read their work and write a 1-2-page narrative that describes their perceived intellectual growth.

Faculty will begin their assessment by reading the two writing assignments and completing a rubric to assess the development of each student's written work. After each individual faculty member completes their rubrics, the faculty will meet to discuss their rubrics, the narratives, and the results of an anonymous assessment survey in which students can report their experiences with the concentration over the course of their four years.

Program Details

See a detailed description of the concentration's requirements and the course of study.

Part 2: Ethics Credential for Undergraduate STEM Majors


A series of seminars and experiences in ethical learning that translates humanistic foundational knowledge into the STEM realm related to 1) conducting research responsibly, 2) the historical underpinnings of science and engineering in society, and 3) personal decision making for people with STEM careers will all formally complement the experiences of STEM majors. Seminars will take advantage of existing resources and can be embedded in individual courses, in programs across years, or in a year or semester across disciplines to support integration of the content with STEM knowledge. Experiences can be tailored for local resources. Credentialing content, activities and assessment guidelines are [will be] made publicly available through the Online Ethics Center.

Goals of the Program

A long term goal is for students to be able to manage ambiguity with sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and awareness (of self and other) and use this to make judgements about action when there is not a clear answer. This credential will provide content and experiences that support the development of these skills and practical integration of the concepts for students in STEM.

Learning Outcomes

  • Learning Outcome 1
    Identify expectations for responsible conduct of STEM research as codified in United States laws, regulations, and policies and the historical motivation for ethical standards in research.
  • Learning Outcome 2
    Recognize and differentiate ethical theories such as utilitarianism (Mill, Singer: maximize high quality happiness for the collective), deontology (Kant, Rawls: ensure that the maxims on which you act are universalizable), virtue ethics (Aristotle: develop good character traits within the constraints of community norms), standpoint theory (hooks, Harding: look to outsiders for meaningful critique), ethics of care (Gilligan, Noddings: fulfill the needs of your care group), evolutionary ethics (Ruse, Wilson: enhance reproductive fitness), divine command theory (Augustine: follow the dictates of a sacred text), and ethical egoism (moral skeptics: act in your own self-interest). This list of Western philosophies can and should be complemented by Eastern, African, and Indigenous American philosophies.
  • Learning Outcome 3
    Describe processes for personal decision making related to STEM activities.
  • Learning Outcome 4
    1) Discuss issues related to responsible conduct of research, historical motivation for ethical standards, and processes for personal decision making, 2) describe how practicing scientists and engineers are using ethical codes to guide behavior and actions, or 3) interact with community representatives through volunteer or learning activities such as participation on an institutional review board (IRB), shadowing a hospital chaplain, or interviewing a practicing engineer.
  • Learning Outcome 5
    Integrate individual STEM knowledge with foundational knowledge about ethics and ethical decision making by addressing ethical issues associated with a current topic in student's field.
  • Learning Outcome 6
    Incorporate diverse perspectives and consider stakeholders that may be unrecognized or otherwise marginalized in an ethical decision making process.
  • Learning Outcome 7
    Appreciate the gray areas of both ethical decision making and science and engineering in spaces where there are no single answers.
  • Learning Outcome 8
    Imagine and describe alternative possibilities and explore avenues that will support and extend their work in both STEM and ethical decision making.

Assessing Program Outcomes

The outcomes and experiences try to address students knowing, acting and valuing of the content as well as identifying the challenging aspects of learning in this space. There is not always one right answer.  Assessment of foundational knowledge in the realm of ethics and a STEM context (LO 1, LO 2) will be primarily based on completion of modules and knowledge/recognition quizzes, which could be done automatically. Most aspects of meta and humanistic knowledge incorporated in this context are better addressed through experiences, reflections, writing, observation of interactions/discussions, and presentations, all of which would need to be assessed by a human with the support of rubrics. Assessing abilities to interact with uncertainty can look at openness within constraints (how many pathways might be visualized) or openness to the future (how many possibilities might be described), ability to recognize missing information, and projecting consequences of projected actions. Rubrics related to student work would gauge knowledge of and comfort with the material as well as depth of questioning and connections beyond basic knowledge.


The details of this credential are aimed at supporting and assessing student development with strong support for faculty who may not be experts in this space or who could benefit from supporting curricular materials. Earning a credential may be motivated by individual desire to grapple with the content, but is most likely going to be motivated by academic program accreditation (particularly in engineering) or assessment. An institution could implement this credential across program years, across disciplines, within one or more courses, or as a stand alone course for either a single major or an interdisciplinary audience. All could have value and would provide different opportunities for integration with specific disciplines and use of local resources such as faculty from philosophy or history, community members, archives, members of local government, or industry partners.

Demonstrative Program Details

This page (opens in a new window) addresses content knowledge and types of learning experiences for this credential in ethics.Program Details »