It is the fourth week of my “Science and Society” course and the students are struggling with a difficult history of the 1887 Michelson-Morley aether experiments. The experiments failed, but twenty years later physicists reinterpreted the results as confirming a key prediction in Einstein's theory of general relativity. The assignment invites students to confront how the meaning of an experimental result depends on what a community of scientists is prepared to believe at a particular moment. These are difficult concepts, and the class includes both students in their first month of college and those starting their senior year. But despite their efforts, the discussion is foundering. I remind them of the previous session’s readings about a psychologist's experiments with flatworms that were discarded as pseudo-science. “Isn't aether now considered pseudoscience?” I ask. They nod cautiously. “So how can an experiment designed to demonstrate something we know is false become a famous proof of something we think is true?” “Because,” ventures my student Gabrielle, “enough physicists believed in relativity to change the meaning of Morley-Michelson.” And we are back on track. The discussion picks up pace and class ends on a high note. Students walk away with a sharper understanding of the social character of scientific knowledge, a key concept in STS.
Over my years in the classroom I have come to see these small moments as crucial. Whether it is watching the STS class grapple with the links between experimental practice and scientific consensus, or listening to the students in my Fall 2016 class on Machiavelli at Wallkill Correctional Facility interpret the dynamics of the presidential election through their reading of The Florentine Histories and The Prince, I encourage students to explain a problem to themselves and in their own words. If everything goes right, my own subsequent explanations enhance rather than replace theirs. I find that by affording students more agency in their learning experiences, they often take greater satisfaction in their own work and learn how to harness their curiosity toward productive ends. If I have a teaching philosophy, this is it.
I also craft assignments that allow students to see the results of their research in action. In “The Trial of Galileo,” for example, the seminar produced a podcast series. The “Science and Society” group organized a consensus conference on the ethical and political challenges posed by algorithmic technologies. I divided the class into teams representing tech companies, government regulators, consumers, and STS experts and gave them a month to research and prepare. The students exceeded all expectations. They incorporated concepts we had learned in class and combined them with their own research to produce a discussion that grappled with difficult tradeoffs between privacy and access, the unintended consequences of poorly constructed algorithms, and the challenges of regulating a complex and tightly coupled technological system. As I remarked to colleagues afterwards, they should have been testifying before Congress. It was a transformative classroom experience of their own making, and one I will not forget.