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What is the Study of STS?

STS is one of almost forty Interdisciplinary Programs at Stanford. It offers a fascinating array of courses from some twenty departments and schools.

Ours is one of many academic STS programs — for example, at Cornell, MIT, UC Berkeley, and Rensselaer Polytechnic — some known by other names such as Science & Technology Studies, Social Studies of Science, etc. Founded in 1971, our Program is among the oldest in the the United States. Read more about the history of the STS field

Why do students choose STS?

What types of courses do STS students take?

STS students at Stanford take two types of courses: (a) technical courses in which they learn and practice science or engineering, and (b) courses in which they study the social and historical context of science and technology. These latter courses engage students with critical aspects of how science and technology are communicated, governed, and taught, as well as how science and technology affect communication, governance, and education. Students come away with an appreciation of the powerful influence of social and infrastructural contexts and the role of human agency, political decisions, and path dependence in technical change. We believe that an understanding of these intricate dynamics – beyond simple preoccupation with “innovation” – is an essential part of being a responsible citizen today and an important educational objective of the program. Explore the degree.

How does an STS major differ from a science, engineering, or medical degree?

Let’s start with an old joke. Two young fish are swimming along. A frog on a lily pad spots them and remarks, “Hello boys! How’s the water today?” The two young fish mumble something to the effect of “Just fine, Grandma.” After they pass by, one young fish eyes the other and asks: “What’s water?”

Scientists, engineers, and medical professionals swim (as they must) in the details of their technical work: experiments, inventions, treatments and cures. It’s an intense and necessary focus. STS, by contrast, draws attention to the water: the social, political, legal, economic, and cultural environment that shapes research and invention, supports or inhibits it — and is in turn shaped by evolving science and technology. Some STS scholars use the analogy of a legal constitution, which determines how specific laws are made and enforced. Similarly, our built environment and our infrastructures constitute the conditions within which we live our lives. As for science, the instruments and models we design constitute the limits of what we can observe and understand. Meanwhile, funding, social needs, religious views, ethics, intellectual property law, and other sociocultural factors make some kinds of scientific advances possible while restricting others.