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Developing New STS Minors: The Case of Cal Poly

Richard D. Besel

17 October, 2016

While the health of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) studies as a broadly-defined field may be gauged by the number of graduate programs offering STS-specific doctorates or undergraduate programs with four-year degrees, much remains to be said about programs offering STS minors. The word “minor” suggests this part of a student’s curriculum is somehow “less important” or “less significant” than other areas of study. While it may be true that students graduating with an STS minor may have taken fewer classes than those offered as part of their majors, minors have an important and significant role to play in the growth of STS at a variety of educational institutions.

The value associated with most minors is well established: Minors allow students to explore areas of intellectual curiosity; increase chances of employment in student-targeted industries; participate in interdisciplinary collaborations; and become better-engaged and well-rounded individuals. These benefits also extend to STS minors. But what might an STS minors program look like? How might institutions without an established STS program go about establishing one? In what follows I wish to highlight how California Polytechnic State University’s (Cal Poly) College of Liberal Arts created an STS minors program that encourages undergraduate students with an array of majors to study and appreciate the interconnections of science, technology, and society in a “Learn by Doing” environment.

Establishing an STS Minors Program

Several years ago Cal Poly’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) created an exploratory “innovations task force.” Representatives from an array of CLA departments soon realized they shared several STS-related interests. Although there was some support for a Cal Poly STS program in the past, it was not until recently that conditions were ideal for a concerted development effort. With strong support from the dean, as well as a cluster of highly motivated faculty, the early skeleton of an STS program began to emerge.

Tapping into areas of already existing faculty expertise, as well as courses already listed in the catalog, four STS minors were proposed and created: Ethics, Public Policy, Science, and Technology (EPPST); Gender, Race, Culture, Science, and Technology (GRCST); Media Arts, Society, and Technology (MAST); and Science and Risk Communication (SRC). However, early discussions emphasized the need for some sense of a common STS grounding. There was also a desire for the program to fit into Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” culture. The decision was made to create two new courses that would bookend the students’ educational journeys.

As a way of ensuring all students in each of the minors were exposed to similar STS concepts, the first required course listed on each minor agreement is “Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society,” a course offered under an interdisciplinary designation at the 100-level. The final course taken by the students in each minor is “Advanced Project-Based Learning in Science, Technology, and Society,” a 400-level course also offered with an interdisciplinary designation. This bookend approach (see image) gives the students common educational start and end points, but also allows for diverse pathways as they complete their respective STS minors.

With much of the curricular concerns addressed, Cal Poly then initiated a cluster search to hire up to four faculty—one in each minor area—who would be joint appointed in the new STS program and a home department. The current governing structure used in Cal Poly’s STS program is one built around a ten-person STS executive committee consisting of those hired with joint appointments, as well as faculty with STS-related teaching and research interests.    

An Optimistic Assessment

While faculty have been involved with Cal Poly’s STS program for several years now, most of these efforts were in the planning and pre-launch phases. It was only in 2015 that the four minors were offered to students. Now in its second year, the program boasts more than 140 students across the four minors. Although many of these students learned about the program from courses that are listed as part of the minors, others are hearing about the minors via marketing and public outreach efforts.

Reflecting back on the Cal Poly experience, a few lessons stand out. First, it is possible that other institutions may have diverse faculty interested in STS issues who have not yet connected with one another, similar to what had happened at Cal Poly. If this is the case, bringing those faculty together under the umbrella of a single program is one way STS programs may emerge at institutions that do not yet have them. Second, curricular concerns may not be as difficult as they first appear when launching an STS minor program. Many colleges and universities already offer courses that explore the intersections of science, technology, and society; they simply have not been connected in a programmatic way. Launching an STS minor may not require the creation of an entire complex of new courses; one may find that already existing courses with one of two tailored offerings will allow for the creation of an effective program.

Although the Cal Poly STS program is off to a great start, there is still much to be done. A new STS culture is beginning to emerge and faculty in other colleges are beginning to notice. It is my hope that the unique four minors model developed at Cal Poly has lessons to offer others as they begin developing their own STS programs. 


Richard D. Besel, PhD is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. 

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Backchannels / Projects

Descriptions of current work—the makings and doings—of STS scholars across the globe. This includes individual work, as well as collaborations between / with academics, practitioners, and policy makers.