Undergraduate students with a strong interest in how technology transforms society and how cultural influences affect technological progress have a new vehicle for focusing their studies.
The Program in Technology and Society, which starts enrolling students this semester after the reorganization and expansion of a successful previous program, offers students two tracks that address key intersections between technology and society: information technology and energy. Both tracks, which share a core course and requirement structure, are designed to bridge the humanities, social sciences and engineering, and are open to students across the University regardless of technical expertise.
“The most critical problems today involve scientific and technological solutions, but not in isolation,” said Sanjeev Kulkarni, director of Princeton’s Keller Center, which administers the program in conjunction with its partners, the Center for Information Technology and Policy and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. As society addresses problems of energy, sustainability, health, security and privacy, “whatever solutions we arrive at have to include the human and cultural factors, the economic and political implications,” Kulkarni said. “So we need students familiar with all sides.”
The Keller Center began fulfilling that vision for a coordinated program in 2010 when it collaborated with Center for Information Technology Policy to create the Program in Information Technology and Society. That program has now been folded into the broader Program in Technology and Society, and the new energy track has been added in collaboration with the Andlinger Center.
Students pursuing either track are required to take the program’s core course, “Technology and Society,” currently taught by Angela Creager, the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History. The course covers many topics currently in the news: nuclear power and waste, genetically-modified organisms, regulation of the Internet, medical mistakes, intellectual property, the financial crisis of 2008, and the post-fossil-fuels economy.
Students are then required to take four courses in their chosen track, two of which are designated as technology courses and two as societal courses. In addition, students take one “breadth” course that combines technological and societal topics in an area outside the student’s chosen track. A student in the energy track, for example, might take “Computers in our World” or “Genes, Health and Society,” while someone in the information technology track could take “Energy Solutions for the Next Century” among many other choices. For science and engineering students, this breadth course must have a societal focus, while humanities or social sciences students must take a breath based in science or technology.
Lastly, students in both tracks must complete independent research in their chosen focus, including a junior paper or senior independent work.
The new energy track addresses the urgent need for leaders who can tackle the complexities of creating an energy system that is environmentally and economically sustainable, said Emily Carter, founding director of the Andlinger Center. “Our goal is to provide students the training to go off and make good decisions in both their personal and professional lives,” Carter said.
One recently created course in the energy track is “Environmental Implications of Energy Technologies,” currently taught by Dan Giammar, Princeton’s Kenan Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching. Students learn to assess energy technologies in terms of their effects on water quality, air quality, land use and climate change.
Carter said that an important aspect of the program is that even the technologically-oriented courses have no or few prerequisites, which she hopes will engage students from the humanities and social sciences. This broad perspective distinguishes the energy track from the University’s Program in Sustainable Energy, which focuses more on detailed technical aspects of energy systems.
For students in either track, the program offers a coherent path of study that can complement their chosen discipline.
Computer science major Anna Simpson, who is pursuing the information technology policy program, said the program “bridges the gap between my classes on the fundamentals of information technology in the computer science department and my interest as a citizen in how technology actually works on local, national and global scales.” Thinking about the history, sociology and politics surrounding the use of technology has been “incredibly enlightening,” Simpson said.
Kulkarni noted that the structure of the program, with its specialized tracks, could allow for additional focus areas to be added. One possibility could be health technologies, he said. Biotechnology, medical devices and computational genomics are technologically complex while involving many questions of human behavior, culture, policy, regulation and economics.
“You have to consider it all,” Kulkarni said. “A solution is not really viable if it doesn’t address all these aspects.”