zondag 18 oktober 2009

Science and technology education: avoiding or using dilemmas?

In the Netherlands science & technology education (STE, but that is already “old”, I still use it because it makes matters very clear) is a priority on many agendas: from government to ngo’s, universities and new institutions especially founded (and funded) for this goal. The idea behind the myriad of programmes and initiatives is to give children and youngsters a perspective on the feasibility of and education in science and technology.
Of course, this has been the goal of science centers around the world for many years now. Actually, it could maybe said that this is their very reason of being. In my work for science centers we increasingly discuss ethical issues with regard to STE. What do I mean by this?
Many science centers have quite a strict policy on whom they cooperate with and whom they don’t. Some projects even have black lists: in the context of the FIRST LEGO League (r) (Stichting Techniekpromotie is the Benelux coordinator) for example the organizers world wide get a so called black list of companies that they cannot approach for sponsoring. For example the army is excluded. But it’s not only within the framework of this competition that this is ‘banned’. Most science center I know in The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and elsewhere in Europe have quite strict ideas on what they wish to show of the world of science and technology and what they wish to avoid.
I have my questions with regard to this strategy. Firstly, how fair is this choice vis a vis the children science centers wish to inspire? Don’t we owe it to our visitors to show the good, the bad and the ugly? All of it is part of science and technology. Secondly, on a more philosophical level: the notion behind this choice seems to be that science and technology are intrinsically neutral and that with this tool one can either do good or bad. This denies much of the philosophical tradition of science and technology in which there is long standing attention for the social construction of science and technology. In short this holds that science and technology are socially constructed and as such are definitely not neutral in themselves. Bruno Latour is a well known propoent of this theory, and in The Netherlands Wiebe Bijker at my alma mater Maastricht University. Thirdly, this pre-selection by science centers and others involved with STE prevents from what I see as being core to the field as well: the confrontation with dilemma’s. What are the dilemma’s scientists are confronted with? And how do you systematically reflect on those as a person and a professional involved in science and/or technology? How do you choose knowing that every choice you make vis a vis the dilemma effectively involves loss? Fourthly there is of course the slippery slope argument: where do we draw the line? Boeing makes passenger planes….but is a serious manufacturer for the army as well. Perhaps the most simple example to make this point clear, which I often use, is the hammer and the screwdriver. They are used to manufacture many things we consider good: shelves for books, cupboards, pans to cook food in, you name it. But these same hammer and screw driver are essential instruments to manufacture weapons. To put the argument in overdrive: no war without hammer and screw driver!
What I wonder: would it not make better educators, better institutions and in the end better professionals if in stead of taking away these dilemma’s in our education we confront the children with these dilemma’s and assist in their systematic, personal reflection on these dilemma’s? Rather than avoiding them altogether? I would say so. And I do see many practical possibilities to incorporate this in the education activities. What are your thoughts?

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