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Spring 2014 New England Regional Meeting Engages Participants in Discussions on Cyber Security, Privacy, and STEM Education

Dr. Winnie Yu, Southern Connecticut State University
Co-Director, SCI-New England
David Burns, NCSCE

On Saturday, April 5, the New England SENCER Center for Innovation hosted its Spring 2014 regional meeting on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) in New Haven. Dean Steven Breese, of the School of Arts and Sciences at SCSU, welcomed attendees and praised the importance of SENCER’s work in advancing STEM education through engagement with pressing civic questions.

The morning sessions revealed the range, depth and difficulty of just some of the civic questions that are emerging as new technologies develop and occupy such an important place in our lives and the world’s economy.

Have you ever wondered how the internet knows that you want to buy or do something even before you do? Professor Craig Wills, chair of the department of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, provided some answers. He and his collaborators investigate how personal information derived from “first party” recipients of personal information gets to so-called “third parties,” who then use that information for commercial or other purposes, from selling shoes to surveillance. Wills and student researcher teams have tracked how ubiquitous the practice has become. He and his students designed research that uncovers and enables us to understand the strategies that have been engineered and installed to gather information that enable “third parties” to predict (and influence) your tastes, predilections, purchases, and politics.

Listening to Professor Wills’ presentation, it was easy to understand why many think that privacy, as we might have once imagined or experienced it, is a rapidly disappearing commodity. We reveal more and more about ourselves through our use of cyberspace. Those revelations render us all the more complete or “complete-able” to those who seek to “know” us.

At the conclusion of his opening keynote, “Understanding What is Happening Regarding Internet Privacy,” Professor Wills offered several suggestions for curtailing what he calls information “leakage.” He also outlined the reasons why some of us–not just users of this data but the “targets” of its uses as well–regard this leakage as desirable.

Suggestions and Slides from Professor Wills’ Presentation

Download (PDF, 954KB)

Suppose you follow Professor Wills’ basic advice if you want to preserve a modicum of privacy and you just minimize the information you give to sites, because, as Wills noted, they “cannot leak what they do not know.” Can you relax now? Maybe not.

If you see something that looks like a bird flying by or into your bedroom window, or if you spot what looks like a strange new insect trying to pollinate your garden, or if you notice that a pet seal seems to be conversing with your grandmother at her assisted living facility, you might want to look twice. Not only should you look twice, but you might want to think twice, too. These marvelous examples of engineering are robots after all. Each of these robotic examples raises a host of ethical, moral, and public policy questions. That’s why they are such good candidates for framing discussions and learning in SENCER courses, according to Dr. Terrell Bynum, a professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University and author of a SENCER model course Computer Ethics. That “bird” could be bringing you medicine, or it could be delivering a neurotoxin to kill you, or maybe its just taking pictures of you in your bedroom. That new strange-looking insect could be an answer to the collapse of bee colonies that threatens agricultural production, or it could be the next “invader” to wreak havoc in an already fragile eco-system. And, really, it may be nice for your grandmother to have something to cuddle and talk to, but would it be a good thing for a mechanical toy to entirely replace a visit from a loved one?

Professor Bynum’s keynote, “Computer Ethics and the SENCER Ideals: How to Connect Students to Important Public Policy Issues,” showed how a focus on “policy vacuums” (Moor, 1985) created by advances in technology – instances where advances in science or technology create policy dilemmas that have not been anticipated, regulated, or mitigated – lead students to quickly grasp unaddressed privacy and security issues and can stimulate deep and connected STEM and other learning. The possibilities for learning are quite broad: Bynum offered examples of policy vacuums and ethical challenges drawn directly from current practices in the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering. To view the slides from Professor Bynum’s presentation, click here: Computer Ethics and the SENCER Ideals.

If the presentations by Wills and Bynum had one unifying theme it might be that a very few entities are now in positions to know about and affect the lives of just about all the rest of us. This is what is some call disproportionality. The third keynote speaker, Dr. Pablo Garcia Molina, chief information officer at Southern Connecticut State University, presented data that suggests that there are disproportionalities within disproportionalities. These disproportionalities have multiple implications.

There is a saying in the disabilities field, articulated at the AAAS Human Rights coalition meeting just this past January, “nothing about us, without us.” Applying this notion to both the substance of IT work (both at the technical and policy levels) and to institutions of higher learning (both at the faculty and student levels), Dr. Molina provided statistical evidence on just how far we have to go if we are to realize the democratic ideal of “not about us, without us” in STEM education—an ideal in the same family as the time-honored tradition of opposition to “taxation without representation,” or a more recently defined standard of “one man (sic), one vote.”

Focusing on the professoriate in IT related fields, using data from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Molina reported that the percentage of women who were full-time, full professors with science, engineering, and health doctorates rose from just under 10% in 1993 to just over 20% by 2010. For underrepresented minorities, the percentage of full-time, full professors with science, engineering, and health doctorates moved from just under 5% to just over 5% from 1993 to 2010 for all institutions. At R1 institutions, that percentage climbed from where it started in 1993, but was still below 5% in the cited NSF report.

The data on student enrollments may be slightly more encouraging and there are a host of incentives to do better in recruiting, retaining and graduating students with IT literacy and IT credentials. Dr. Molina, who is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown and “attended” the meeting on a video link, concluded his remarks with some recommendations and a call for participants to examine how their organizations can better meet a “diversITy” goal.

Slides from Dr. Molina’s Presentation

Download (PDF, 1.21MB)

Following spirited luncheon discussions, the afternoon program featured three panel presentations on strategies for improving STEM learning through pedagogy, partnerships, and best practices.

“Integrated Learning Within STEM Disciplines and Beyond,” highlighted two new team-taught, interdisciplinary courses:

  • Biosphere, Atmosphere, and Human Fears, offered at WPI by biology and biotech professor Dr. Marja Bakermans and philosophy professor Dr. Geoffrey Pfeifer, and
  • Math and the Environment, offered through the SCSU Honors College by mathematics professor Dr. Therese Bennett and environmental studies professor Dr. James Tait.

Presenters recounted the process of successfully developing and implementing team-taught courses that engaged and motivated students and offered suggestions for the application of SENCER strategies in interdisciplinary programs.

“Improving STEM Learning for K-16 Students by Involving Community Partners” was the focus of a second panel presentation:

  • Dr. Maria Diamantis, director of SCSU’s Center for Excellence in Mathematics and Science (CEMS), described programs for middle school and high school students that encourage STEM learning, as well as college level programs affiliated with CEMS, including Southern Women in Math and Sciences (SWIMS), and
  • Campus Compact leaders Debby Scire (New Hampshire) and Kelly Condon (Rhode Island) reported on current developments in Campus Compact within their states and nationally and outlined new opportunities for collaboration.

The panel prompted a discussion on how to make civic engagement a more central theme in higher education.

The final panel “From Theory to Practice: How to Make Things Work” offered practical advice:

  • Dr. Jeff Webb of SCSU described the creation of a SENCER model course using the Student Assessment in Learning Gains (SALG) instrument—in what we could describe as a “backwards design” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) approach that focused on what he wanted students to take away from a chemistry course and
  • Dr. Susan Cusato, also of SCSU, described the development of her course on Pollinators (and had a few things to say about the pollinator robots described by Professor Bynum). She suggested ways to extend SENCER projects on campus with external funding.

Both presenters concluded with suggestions for integrating SENCER work into one’s teaching and scholarship. Professor Webb commented on his experience of having his work peer-reviewed and published in Science Education and Civic Engagement-An International Journal. He commended the Journal and Marcy Dubroff, in particular, for her assistance and help in the submission and process. His article, Integrating SENCER into a Large Lecture General Education Chemistry Course, can be found here.

The next SCI-New England Regional Meeting is scheduled for Fall 2014 and will take place in western Massachusetts. Information on how to take part in the meeting will be shared in a future issue of the eNews.

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