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The Center for Science in Society
After 6 Years (2001-2006)

Paul Grobstein
October 2006

Paul Grobstein was founding director of the Center for Science in Society and prepared this document at the beginning of the final year of his second term as Center director. A review of Center development and activities is followed by some brief reflections on the lessons to be learned from the Center's experiences so far and its future directions. This document was made available to a Leadership Renewal Committee (Peter Brodfuehrer, Kim Cassidy, Alison Cook-Sather, Anne Dalke, Deepak Kumar, Elizabeth McCormack, Sharon Burgmayer) which is preparing recommendations for the Provost and President about the next phase of development of the Center.

Introduction and Sources

Excerpts from the founding documents for the Center (with links to the originals) and an interim summary of its activities up to September 2003 are available at http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/about.html. A calendar of events for spring semester during the planning year 2000 is available at http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/calendar00.html. Calendars showing Center events for each semester from spring 2001 (when the Center formally came into existence) through spring 2006 are available at http://www.brynmawr.edu/centers/archives.html.

A major commitment of the Center from its founding and continuing through the present has been to maintain and update web materials reflecting its activities. The calendars can serve to get a quick overview of the kinds of activities the Center has supported and been involved in, and clearly show the breadth of engagements and of participants in Center activities. The principle reason for maintaining and updating web documentation was, however, and continues to be to give some lasting character to otherwise ephemereal conversations, to promote continuing conversations (both face to face and on-line), and to give visibility, both at the College and in wider venues, to the activities of the Center. Calendar links can in general be followed to additional materials, including discussion notes and lists of participants.

From its inception, the Center has been committed to being a "think tank" or "incubator", a support mechanism to encourage conversations that would not otherwise take place, among scientists from different disciplines, between scientists and non-scientists, between academics and non-academics, and between faculty and students. Rather than focusing on a single topic or discussion in which everyone is involved, the Center has encouraged a distributed, flexible organization in which groups of people come together around common interests, explore those for as long as seems productive, and then dissolve. It was presumed, and has proven true, that such an arrangement yields novel ideas and products (courses, publications, new alliances) that can take on lives of their own without further Center support. In the following I provide brief notes on the major activities the Center has been involved in.

The Emergence Working Group

This group has been meeting weekly since academic year 2002-2003 and has involved a large number of both faculty and students from a variety of disciplines ranging from physics, biology, and psychology to archeology, history, and English at Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and Haverford There are extensively documented presentations and on-line conversations available via links from the group's home page at http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/emergence. Among the lasting products of this group is an undergraduate course on emergence (http://serendipstudio.org/complexity/course/emergence06/index.html), a publication in press on Emergent Pedagogy (Blank, Dalke, Grobstein, Cassidy), and an upcoming edited collection of essays. Discussions in this group also informed a summer institute for K-12 teachers (http://serendipstudio.org/local/suminst/eei03/). A spinoff of this group was a series on Information in the summer of 2004 (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/information/). A second spin off group on Symmetry, Information, and Indeterminacy is in the planning stage, as are discussions of the future of the emergence working group itself.

Linguistics and the Language Working Group

Eric Raimy, a tri-co Linguistics faculty member, received salary support as a Center Fellow during the first year of his appointment, and was supported with space and computer facilities throughout his time in the Tri-co community. The Center was actively involved in assuring the continuation of the tri-co Linguistics program in other ways as well. Under Eric's guidance, a Language Working Group (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/language/index04.html) met regularly from 2001-2004, involving faculty and students from a number of Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore departments including Linguistics, Biology, and English. With Eric's departure, the group is currently in abeyance.

Mental Health Working Group

This group was originally formed in 2001 by faculty and students in biology and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research to develop web resource materials (http://serendipstudio.org/sci_cult/mentalhealth) to be used in, among other places, a praxis course in mental health (http://serendipstudio.org/sci_cult/mentalhealth/praxis02/) involving a diverse array of faculty. The group also presented a panel discussion on Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience in 2003 (http://serendipstudio.org/psychoneuro03.html), and brought family therapist and NPR radio personality Dan Gottllieb to the campus in 2004 (http://serendipstudio.org/gottlieb04/). A new series of monthly meetings on "Exploring Mental Health" was initiated this fall (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/mentalhealth).

Diversity Conversations

From 2003, the Center played a major role in organizing, supporting and maintaining web materials for a series of diversity conversations, involving faculty, students, and staff at Bryn Mawr and Haverford (http://serendipstudio.org/sci_cult/diversity/indexbmc.html). As of this year, the series, the first extended community discussions of diversity, is being continued (with Center support) under the direction of the new Office of Institutional Diversity.


The Center has been involved in a variety of programs related to education at a variety of levels. Sharon Burgmayer, of the chemistry department, was a Center Fellow in 2003-2004 and developed a new course on the Stuff of Art (http://serendipstudio.org/sci_cult/chemart/). Jody Cohen, of the Bi-College Education Program was a Center Fellow in 2004-2005 and collaborated on a synthesis of education and technology experiences on Serendip (http://serendipstudio.org/sci_edu/edtech.html). Alison Cook-Sather contributed material to that exhibit (http://serendipstudio.org/sci_edu/edtech04/expanding/cooksather/cooksather1.html, reviewing in part the Talking Toward Techo-Pedagogy program she had developed with Elliott Shore and that was hosted on Serendip. Alice Lesnick developed a Serendip based course on the Theory and Practice of Extra-Classroom Teaching that included the creation of an on-line handbook (http://serendipstudio.org/sci_edu/edtech04/expanding/ed225s05/). During 2005-2006, there were a series of conversations on Stories of Teaching and Learning (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/bmcedu/) that began exploring the educational practices at the College itself (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/bmcedu/). This grew out of meetings of the Graduate Idea Forum (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/grad/ideaforum/) begun in 2002-2003, and its Explorations of Teaching Group begun in spring 2005, and still continuing. This group, focusing initially on graduate education at both the College and GSSWSR, also created a "Dean's Certificate in Education" program for graduate students. The latter has been incorporated into the activities of the Dean of the Graduate School. Many of the other activities related to undergraduate and graduate education at the College are being incorporated into the College's new Teaching and Learning Initiative.

Outreach activities have been a major activity of the Center. In addition to supporting the summer working program for K-12 teachers (http://serendipstudio.org/local/suminst) which is organized and funding by a grant to the College by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Center has in the past year developed a collaboration with Lansdowne Friends School to help develop a new preK-6 curriculum in the sciences (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/lansdownefriends/). A new Center working group on elementary science education, involving students and faculty as well K-12 educators will begin meeting this semester

The Journal of Research Practice

Recognizing a need to provide publication venues for the kind of interdisciplinary work the Center is committed to supporting, the Center agreed in 2004 to support and help fund a new open-access referred international journal "to develop research practice and promote research education around the world ". Two Bryn Mawr faculty serve in editorial positions for this journal (http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp). Two publications by College faculty have already appeared in this journal and a special issue on "Interdisciplinary Education", co-edited by Bryn Mawr faculty and containing contributions by a number of additional College faculty reflecting participation in Center programs is scheduled to appear in 2007.

Evening Symposia

In the spring of 2003, and again in the spring of 2004, the Center sponsored respectively interdisciplinary symposia on "Time" (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/time/) and on "Beauty (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/beauty/). Each consisted of more than a month of weekly meetings involving faculty and students from a wide range of disciplines in the sciences and beyond. A similar symposium on the "Self" is planned for spring of this year.

The Brown-Bag Series

This has been the only program aimed at being an umbrella for all Center programs and participants. It met weekly from the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2006 (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/brownbag/) to discuss a range of topics that in turn became important for other working groups. As of this year, plans are in progress to develop a new format for the umbrella discussions.

Other working groups

The Unverse Bar (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/universebar/), a student initiated student faculty discussion group, met in 2003-2005 and 2004-2005. The group is currently in abeyance. A group on "Rethinking Parenting", an outgrowth of the Brown Bag series, met in 2005-2006. Its activities are expected to be absorbed in those of the President's Advisory Committee for Work-Family Balance. The Center has also experimented with supporting selected interdisciplinary faculty research projects (http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/womensci/ and http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/workfamily/) and summer interdisciplinary research experiences

Other collaborations

Support for other programs

Women in Science Symposium
Health and Medicine in Africa Workshop
Signs and Voices Tri-Co symposium on deaf culture
Building Two-Way Bridges: A Conversation about Gender and Science
Keck Research/Teaching Fellowships
Graduate Student Journal Club
History of Science Mellon Fellows
Graduate Student Science Research Symposium
Changing Pedagogies in Math and Science Education (program and course)
Philadelphia regional PKAL network meetings
Music East and West
Katherine Houghton Helpburn Center

Additional visitors brought to campus (sample)

Catherine Steiner Adair (body image council)
David Barash (biology, psychology)

Mary Belenky and Blythe Clinchy (graduate idea forum) Andrew Brook (philosophy)
Octavia Butler (feminsist and gender studies)
Richard Burian (philosophy)
George Dyson (computer science)
Paul Ehrich (biology, environmental studies)
Amber Hallibaugh (feminist and gender studies)
Judith Houck (history of science)
Maitland Jones (chemistry)
Gina Kolata (biology/Rothenberg lecture)
Julie Hegelin (environmental studies)
George Lakoff (linguistics)
Pierre Laszlo (chemistry)
Mark Lechner (biology)
Marco Lenci (math)
Lilian McDermott (physics)
William Labov (linguistics)
Sharon Lamb (feminist and gender studies)
Kevin Padian (geology, Sigma Xi)
Katherine Park (history of science)
Scott Patterson (math)
Wiliam Rathje (anthropology, green committee)
Scott Ritter (international studies)
Maxine Savitz (chemistry, environmental studies)
Tom Sgouros (computer science)
Harold Shapiro (President's Office)
Catherine Stimpson (grad idea forum)
Shirely Tilghman (biology, Rothenberg)
Jennifer Terry (feminist and gender studies)
Koffi Tozzo (chemistry)

Some brief reflections

A review of these materials will, I believe, show that the Center has had a significant impact on the College, and indeed has functioned successfully as an incubator or think tank, involving substantial numbers of faculty and students from a variety of disciplines as well as non-academics in new and productive conversations. It has done so at relatively low cost, using a distributed organizational structure that notices and responds flexibly to potentially productive alliances around subjects that are of common interest to a variety of people. In so doing, the Center has shown that a more integrated intellectual community can be successfully implemented, at relatively low cost, within and parallel to a strongly disciplinary academic structure. This is relevant not only at Bryn Mawr but in academic institutions generally (see http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/9/18 and http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2006/06mj/06mjdalk.htm and http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/43/54 for discussion of details of the history of the Center to date as they seem applicable in wider contexts).

On reflection, the principle successes of the Center to date seem to me to have derived from an operational set of principles of the following sort:

  • Identify one or more faculty members who aspire to study patterns of understanding across disciplines. Provide the time and resources for them to do so, using a flexible oversight and administrative structure, and make their endeavor visible to others on campus.
  • Create an atmosphere in which both interdisciplinary and disciplinary perspectives are clearly welcome and valued.
  • Allow for the continuing development and disappearance of a variety of conversations reflecting the evolving interests in the intellectual community.
  • Focus conversations on topics that touch on the concerns of different disciplines, making it as likely as possible that scholars in one discipline will benefit from the perspectives of colleagues in others. Topics should bring together faculty who do not interact in the course of other professional activities.
  • Make sure that the faculty involved approach the conversations are as an ongoing and productive discussion rather than a one-time or ephemeral event. Individual faculty members should be free to participate in and drop out of conversations according to their interests. For the conversations to succeed, however, a core group of faculty must be committed to them and to a mechanism for giving them visibility.
  • Conversation sessions are most productive when they occur in a relatively small group (five or six to twenty or so), who come expecting to participate in an atmosphere conducive to such an exchange (a seminar room or lounge with refreshments provided). To maintain a sense of continuity, meet more frequently than once a month and keep individual sessions to one or two hours. Background readings are useful to get conversation started but are less essential for productive discussion than the quality of an initial brief presentation by a session organizer or facilitator.
I believe that the directions in which the Center has shown it to be possible to move are healthy and beneficial ones for both the educational and the scholarly enterprises, as well as for the academic/cultural interface, and that further movements along those lines are quite possible using the procedures and extensions of procedures developed from experiences to date. At the same time, I am aware that both inclination and availability of time to promote movements in these directions are not universal or inexhaustible. I encourage careful thought about the future value and viability in this particular community of a commitment to the kind of values the Center has expressed to date. Assuming those values continue to seem important and sustainable, there is, it seems to me, a clear need to develop some additional mechanisms, beyond simple patience, to promote those values. Alternatively, the Center may need to at least somewhat reconceive its primary objectives and implement new procedures and programs appropriate for such reconceived objectives. Some combination of the two is of course also possible.

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