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Hacking the STEM Syllabus

The Internet's dark side is more evident than ever, as "Big Tech" platforms give users tools to manipulate opinion, spew hate, and incite violence. To restore the Internet’s positive potential, we must ensure that those who drive its progress learn to assess the social, economic, and political consequences of their work.

SAN FRANCISCO – After a prolonged honeymoon for the digital economy, the dark side of the Internet, social media, and “Big Tech” has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Online, what is good for business is not necessarily good for individuals or societies. Big Tech platforms make it easy to manipulate opinion, spew hate, and incite violence.

We once naively believed that mass access to the World Wide Web would inevitably democratize information; today, we worry about the emergence of an “addiction economy” that is bad for everyone. What can be done to support more humane, ethical, and effective technology?

One important way to address this problem in a systemic way is by reforming education in the so-called STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. Policymakers worldwide are already focusing on increasing the number of STEM graduates and the diversity of STEM students. But we should also expand the scope of STEM education, to ensure that students learn to evaluate and respond to the social, economic, and political consequences of their work.

This does not mean adding existing humanities or social sciences courses to a STEM curriculum. Rather, it will require the development of an entirely new curriculum that gives the next generation of technologists, engineers, scientists, and mathematicians the formal foundations – including shared vocabulary and intellectual frameworks – for considering the macro effects of their actions on society. Without such a framework, the gap between the promise of innovation and the reality of human experience will only grow.

Fortunately, the seeds of this educational revolution are already sprouting. Some universities are adding ethics classes to the STEM curriculum. Stanford University, with its deep links to the tech industry, has recently added courses with topics like “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change” and “Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy.”

Stanford has also recently launched a new Human-Centered AI Initiative, which recognizes that “the development of AI should be paired with an ongoing study of its impact on human society, and guided accordingly.” Last year, Cornell launched the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity. 

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These early initiatives can serve as important testing grounds for new curricula and methods. But the real change will come only when all STEM programs provide students with the tools they need to carry out a credible assessment of their work’s effects on humanity.

Of course, such changes will mean little if we do not know what the most effective tools actually are. That is why continued experimentation is also essential.

Casey Fiesler of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is pursuing just such experimentation by crowd-sourcing syllabi focused on tech ethics. The growing online database already contains more than 200 different syllabi from universities around the world. Yet only one-quarter of these courses are taught by computer science faculty. The rest are taught in departments such as law, philosophy, and communications, which means that they are not being tailored to STEM-related challenges.

More fundamentally, such standalone courses are not ideal. A better approach, as Fiesler herself agrees, would focus on integrating ethics into “everyday practice” in the STEM fields. (Fiesler hopes that her database will help faculty make this case to their universities.)

This is the goal of the Responsible CS Challenge, launched last month by Omidyar Network, Schmidt Futures, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and Mozilla. The two-year challenge should encourage computer science professors in the United States to integrate ethics into their undergraduate curriculum, so that STEM students can gain a deeper understanding of how technology affects humanity.

This is a good first step, but much more must be done. For one thing, while the initial focus on ethics makes sense, similar explorations will be needed in a wide variety of disciplines such as economics, psychology, and many more of the so-called humanities.

Expanding STEM education to include such broader considerations would serve as a cornerstone of a more comprehensive long-term strategy to ensure that technology serves society in overwhelmingly positive ways. That strategy must also include changes, say, to business models, incentives, innovation strategies, and regulatory regimes – changes that should be pursued by people whose education has prepared them to address the effects of their work on the rest of us.