Putting the Science in Society: Stuyvesant’s Newest Science Elective

Stuyvesant’s new science elective Science and Society, taught by Kristyn Pluchino, offers juniors and seniors a course where they can acquire the skills to interpret society’s impact on science and vice versa as well as evaluate the ethics and morals of science in history and the present.

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By Zifei Zhao

Over the course of human history, science has taken many shapes and forms. Since ancient times, people have reflected their curiosity in the world around them. As time went on, human interest in the unknown flourished along with the ways we approach our big questions. Our curiosity has been a continuing force throughout centuries, most notably during the Scientific Revolution, which caused a large wave of cultural and intellectual movements and promoted new areas and outlooks of science. A combination of these movements and our persistent curiosity upended the traditional ways of thinking in society and gave birth to the emergence of modern science.

Fast-forward to 2021. From world-changing events, such as a pandemic, to minor occurrences in our lives, such as our brain processing the information we read from our textbooks in milliseconds, both scientific research and science itself have inherited their glory from the past and continue to remain firmly at the forefront of society.

This fall, Stuyvesant launched “Science and Society,” a new science elective open to juniors and seniors for the 2021-2022 school year. The elective is taught by chemistry teacher Kristyn Pluchino, who has taught Sophomore Honors Chemistry for the past 15 years. Pluchino believes this elective represents a new and exciting opportunity that will paint a brand new color both on her teaching career and her students’ learning experiences by bridging the gap between scientific studies and the humanities.

Science itself is complex and multidimensional, and it is a fairly impossible task for us to understand every aspect of it. It is not uncommon to find that many students still struggle to answer the question “Why does science matter?” even after years of challenging science classes. For this reason, Pluchino encourages her students, whether they are science-oriented or not, to look beyond the surface and dive deeper into the fundamental significance of the nature of science. “Whether you want to believe it or not, science plays a huge role in our society,” Pluchino said. “The role that science plays is emphasized especially in the past 18 months of the pandemic and how it impacted our daily lives. Science impacts society and society impacts science. Neither thing happens in a bubble.”

In class, students examine a wide variety of scientific case studies throughout history—ranging from the 1854 outbreak of the Blue Death, also known as cholera, to the modern issues of programming self-driving cars—and develop questions about each case. In future lessons, Pluchino hopes to teach her students about media, scientific policy, and human ethics.

To enroll in this one-semester course, students are required to have taken at least two full years of biology and chemistry. The curriculum covers a broad spectrum of topics that include, but are not limited to, the scientific process, experimental design, the media, public policy, and ethics. The new elective is designed not necessarily to dive deeply into a specific science subject, but rather to acquire and hone the fundamental skills needed to conduct research on a plethora of topics.

Pluchino comes up with the curriculum herself, building it along the way and basing it on important topics and skills that make up a critical scientific thinker. She hopes to make the course a long-running elective and something her students can reflect upon in the far future.

Pluchino is also grateful to her students for their patience and cooperation as she navigates the challenges associated with teaching a brand new course and enjoys learning along with her students. “It’s nice to see students who identify as non-science people participate in class,” she said. “I feel like I’m learning a lot as I’m going through the course. It’s been fun to teach, I learned a lot of things, and it gets you thinking about concepts and ideas you might not have heard of before. Kind of puts me in you guys’ shoes.”

Senior Sophie Liu finds the class to be especially relaxing and enjoyable. “To me, the class is really chill compared to other things, which is really nice,” she explained. “Right now, my favorite topic is the one we’re doing right now—science versus pseudoscience. We basically go over old case studies and talk about what they did for science, such as the different types of scientific studies and how to identify them. We also get worksheets with questions on them, but there [are] a lot of discussions too.”

As Science and Society is still a new course, it is inevitable that the learning process will be difficult, but both Pluchino and her students are positive that the elective will prove to be an exciting addition to the school’s science electives.

Overall, whether you consider yourself as a “science person” or not, the Science and Society elective provides a transformative opportunity that exposes students to a new dimension of their scientific thinking processes and uncovers the future of our society shaped by scientific knowledge and its worldview. “I know that not everyone wants to continue [studying] science,” Pluchino said. “It’s dangerous to be completely ignorant of it, though. It’s important to separate fact from fiction and be aware of the role science plays in society.”