Science in a Changing World: New Grad Program Puts Science in Context

Lissa Harris | April 07, 2010
Science in a Changing World: New Grad Program Puts Science in Context

There's a movement afoot in the academy for training students to grapple with scientific problems in their social context, outside of the laboratory, and UMass Boston is embracing it.

This year, the university has a new offering for students who want to engage with science across boundaries: a new master's program dedicated to the study of science in the social world that draws on collaboration between faculty in the sciences, humanities, management and education.

The new Science in a Changing World (SICW) track offers two options: a 33-credit master's degree, and a 15-credit graduate certificate. The program is also in the process of applying for accreditation for a professional master's program.

The program owes its existence largely to the work of Professor Peter Taylor, author of the 2005 book Unruly Complexity and director of the Critical and Creative Thinking program.

Taylor's own work, which focuses on ecology, social epidemiology and complexity in systems, is itself an ambitious effort to bridge many disciplinary boundaries.

“My aspiration is to foster education that supports people to become resilient and reorganize their lives, communities, and economies in response to social, environmental changes,” he writes in his faculty profile.

The new SICW graduate track evolved, with the support of Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Winston Langley, from a program that has been running at the university for several years: the InterCollege Faculty Seminar in Humanities and Sciences, a regular discussion group for faculty from across the university to engage with problems that touch on many disciplines. Many of the faculty currently teaching courses in the SICW track have been regular participants in the seminars.

“It's been very rewarding,” Taylor says. “When you meet consistently to discuss intellectual things, you build up a common vocabulary, common interests.”

Physics professor Bala Sundaram, who teaches in the SICW program, says the flourishing of connections between quantitative and qualitative fields has been good for both students and faculty.

“Just having the SICW track provides a mechanism for interaction between people in different disciplines throughout the university,” he says.

Boston is already known as a hub for academic work at the intersection of science, policy and the humanities. Harvard, MIT and Boston University are home to excellent programs for science and technology studies, science journalism and the intersection of science and management. But what defines UMass Boston's program in the arena of science and society studies, says Taylor, is its focus on engagement.

“We're interested in what I would call engagement with the world,” he says. “How do you get more people to use that knowledge to have some influence, whether it's influence in policy, or in education, in teaching, or public participation? That's what's distinctive about our program.”

Because of its interdisciplinary nature, the SICW track can be adapted to fit into existing graduate programs. The physics department is already developing a professional science master's degree that uses the SICW graduate courses, says Sundaram. He hopes the program will attract students who are interested in doing graduate work in physics, but not necessarily in an academic physics career.

“The community of students that go into physics at our level is somewhat small. But at the same time, the general sense is that physics is a way of thinking that can be brought to bear on other areas,” he says. “The key point really is to expand the range of options for the students in our program.”

Students who engage with mastering the skills of both scientific reasoning and the more qualitative realms of social studies, history and textual analysis are in growing demand in the workforce, says Sundaram. There are many fields outside academic science in which scientific literacy is increasingly important, from policy and law to business and communication.

“For people who are inclined to do this, it provides a good career option. It allows you to go between two communities that don't often see eye to eye,” says Sundaram.

On April 16, the new SICW program will be hosting an expo on “Changing Science, Changing Society,” featuring talks by Marisa Matias, member of the European Parliament and environmental health activist in Portugal, and Raúl García Barrios of the National Autonomous University of México, who does research and activism around watershed and landfill issues. For more details, see

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