When Sydney Stenseth (Engr ’18) signed up for STS 2500, what caught her eye were the last two words of the course title: “Outer Space.” The meaning of the first three —“The Anthropology of”—was a little less clear.
“I am really into astronomy, having done research on pulsars my first year,” says Stenseth, a chemical engineering major. “I had no idea what [the course] was going to be about, but it sounded really interesting.”
Her expectations were typical of what students told the class’s instructor Lisa Messeri, an assistant professor of science, technology and society, in their course evaluations.
Her course helps the department prepare students—most of them engineering majors like Stenseth—to combine their technical expertise with ethical judgment, says W. Bernard Carlson, chair of the Department of Engineering and Society and the Joseph L. Vaughan Professor of Humanities.
“If you’re trying to design something, the right questions to ask aren’t just technical,” he says. “What’s the right thing for the client? For your company, your community and the environment? What’s the right thing for the American economy and the world? Each of these contexts requires a series of judgments.”
Messeri’s course is an elective in the Science, Technology and Society program. All engineering students are required to take four STS courses; about 1,400 students are enrolled in one or more in a typical year.
“At a place like UVA, it is not enough just to develop students with high scientific engineering and analytical skills,” Carlson says. “UVA believes we produce the best possible engineer by making sure that analysis and judgment are brought together.”
That coupling is apparent from the first day of Messeri’s class. She introduces her course’s subject through a series of images. She first puts up a still from a Star Trek movie showing the ship’s bridge and asks, “What’s technical in this image? What’s social?” She follows it with a photograph of mission control from an Apollo mission. By the time she puts up her third image—a clear night sky—her students are primed. They discuss not just stars and satellites but also the concepts the night sky conjures: the constellations named by ancient Greeks and our own religious and existential questions about our place in the universe, for example.
“We look at space to understand ourselves,” Messeri says. Her course assignments seek to deepen students’ capacity to analyze how cultural ideas infuse scientific and technological ones. One asks them to complete a challenge that Carl Sagan tackled in 1977: Choose the sounds that will best represent humanity for placement on a satellite traveling into deep space. Another assignment asks them to “head over to the observatory to observe the observers,” an exercise in anthropological field work.
“One of the things anthropologists do is observe, and there’s this funny coincidence that astronomers also observe,” Messeri says. “They’re observing objects, and we’re observing people. How do those two different kinds of observation produce two different kinds of knowledge?”
Messeri herself took on the assignment of observing the observers in her new book, Placing Outer Space, which earned a back-cover endorsement from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. (He praised it as “part cosmic travelogue, part scholarly analysis.”) In the book, Messeri—who has a degree from MIT in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, aka rocket science—analyzes her experiences embedding herself with researchers at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah and astronomy students crunching telescope data from France’s space agency to find exoplanets, among others.
“What questions might we raise if we take seriously the astronomical claim that to know Earth and to know ourselves requires that we know other worlds?” she writes.
They’re the kinds of questions to which she’s introducing her students through her course.
“It was sometimes hard to grasp just how much outer space has influenced culture in different ways today, but it was really fun exploring it,” Stenseth says. “I wish everyone had to take a class like this because it really helps us define our place on Earth and bring more meaning to it.”