Participants’ Reflections on the 2005 New England Workshop

on Science and Social Change


Steve Fifield, Ph.D., workshop participant/evaluator

Delaware Education Research and Development Center &

Department of Biological Sciences

University of Delaware

August 18, 2005




The 2005 New England Workshop on Science and Social Change (NewSSC05) was held April 21-24 at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA.  As a participant/evaluator in NewSSC05, I took part in all the workshop activities.  I also worked with the organizer, Peter Taylor, and the workshop facilitator, Tom Flanagan, to conceive and conduct workshop activities to encourage participants to reflect on the emerging meaning and value of the workshop in light of their interests, expectations and goals. These reflections were usually in writing, but some participants also used drawings and diagrams.  In this report I draw on the participants’ reflections to suggest 1) what aspects of the workshop ought to be sustained, and 2) how the workshop might be revised to enhance its long-term impact on the participants and on scholarship, education, and activism regarding science, technology and society.


Workshop Premises & Objectives


The premises and objectives of the NewSSC05 offer points of reference against which to interpret participants’ reflections on their experiences and their implications for future workshops. The premises and objectives were discussed in online materials available to the participants prior to the workshop (see, and summarized by Peter Talyor on the first day of the workshop.


Premises of NewSSC


1. Wider discussion of science and technology can influence science, society, science education, and citizen activism in constructive ways.

2. Academic meetings are more fruitful when they allow participants to connect theoretical, pedagogical, practical, political, and personal aspects of the issue at hand.

3. Scholars who have a repertoire of process or participation skills are more comfortable and productive in organized and informal collaborative processes, and are more likely to see new opportunities, take initiative, and experiment with the models they have been introduced to.

4. Workshop costs can be kept low if participants expect the workshops to be generative and restorative and are prepared, therefore, to attend without full underwriting of expenses or honoraria. To the extent that this premise is born out, participants will be able to envisage more opportunities for cross-disciplinary meetings and subsequent collaborations (see premise 3).


Specific objectives of NewSSC


a) Stimulate new interdisciplinary projects and collaborations among STS scholars, scientists, science educators, and concerned citizens.

b) Develop participants' skills and interest in engaging constructively beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries and contributing to wider discussion of the changing social uses of knowledge about genes, environment, and development.


Workshop Activities & Participants


The online workshop program contains the daily schedule of workshop activities ( Some pre-circulated workshop readings are also accessible without a password on this website. For a description of similar workshop activities, and of a workshop with a collaborative, emergent process, see my evaluation report of the 2004 NewSSC, <>). 


Eleven people (six men, five women) took part in some or all of the NewSSC05 activities. The participants’ fields included biological research; history, philosophy and social studies of science and technology; undergraduate science education and teacher education; biotechnology R&D, and information technology.  More detailed participant profiles are available at Peter Taylor, myself, and one other participant also attended the 2004 workshop; the others were first time participants in a NewSSC workshop.


Participants’ Reflections


This evaluation report draws on participants’ reflections created during two workshop activities, one on the second day and another on the fourth (and final) day. I looked closely at the participants’ comments, and compared one to another, to identify themes that represent broadly shared perspectives, as well as informative exceptions to the dominant themes. I did not treat the participants’ reflections like survey data to be sorted and quantified.  The activities in which the participants created these reflections were substantive components of the workshop, rather than interruptions in activities to collect evaluation data.  Further, the prompts were loosely structured to give participants the freedom to respond in ways that were most meaningful to them at the time.  The result is a collection of writings and illustrations that often take the same prompts in different directions.  For each collection of reflections, I offer examples that illustrate common themes followed by an interpretive summary of what the feedback says about the workshop’s strengths and opportunities for enhancing its impact.


Evaluation Activity 1: Where am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going?


Late on the second full day (Friday, April 22) of the workshop, we asked participants to respond to this prompt: “As I consider my experiences in this workshop so far, Where am I? Where have I come from? and Where do I want to I go?”  We invited them to use whatever means of expression they could put on paper–words, drawings, diagrams, etc.  The prompt used the metaphor of a journey to invite participants to consider the relationship of the workshop to their past, present, and future work and broader lives. 


Participants responded with prose, lists, flow charts, diagrams, and drawings. Responses included:


Ø    “I am at a place where I wish I could read something of each participants’ work, and then talk to them, perhaps 1-on-1, about their ideas and perhaps mine. I wasn’t here when I arrived.  I read some things ahead, but now I have much more context and curiosity. … Now I wonder whether I will have the time to discuss these things, and whether others whom I’m especially interested in considering my ideas, will have the time to read or discuss them.”

Ø    A diagram with many intersecting circles, and a stick figure moving from outside the circles to the space where they all overlap.

Ø    A sequence of three diagrams that represent Where have I come from?, Where am I now, and Where do I want to go?, respectively.  In the first two diagrams, “genetic knowledge” moves from outside the “complexities of the social environment” to being contained in and a part of those complexities.  In the third diagram, a “?” is contained in a space labeled “explore new relations/conceptual possibilities.”

Ø    A drawing shows an individual who moves from being in a “desert” separated from a “scholarly stream,” to standing on the shore of that scholarly stream, and finally to being immersed in the stream.

Ø    Two word diagrams with the workshop participant’s initials at the center of each.  In the first, labeled “From”, the individual is connected to philosophy of science and sociology, feminist critiques, teaching, science, interdisciplinary courses, and scientists. A change process labeled “Group at Woods Hole” and “Walk on beach!” yields a diagram in which “resources/people in diverse fields” is a new intermediary, and presumably enabling, link between the individual; philosophy, history and sociology of science; and teaching.


Interpretive Summary. As illustrated in these examples, the workshop participants’ described personal journeys that involved encounters with people and ideas that reshaped their social relationships and conceptual understandings.  People at very different places in their careers–including a graduate student, a scientist moving into science studies, and a senior scholar in science studies–all saw themselves headed toward new relationships that would enable, and even transform, their scholarly work.  This suggests that, at least on the second day, the workshop met the needs of a diverse group of people as individuals created their own ways to, as the organizer hoped, “engage constructively beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries.”  The workshop supported these journeys by providing opportunities to interact, productive strategies for interacting and thinking in new ways, and a safe space to take the risks that enable change.  Time will tell if the workshop leads to “new interdisciplinary projects and collaborations,” but the participants’ saw themselves traveling in that direction with the help of their workshop colleagues.


Evaluation Activity 2: 2005 Participants’ Reactions to Comments and Reviews


On the final morning of the workshop, participants were asked to react to a) the recommendations I made in the evaluation of the 2004 NewSSC (see, b) feedback from workshop participants from the previous year, and c) reviewers’ comments on Peter Taylor’s 2004 National Science Foundation proposal to fund NewSSC workshops. These prompts where points of reference against which participants evaluated their experiences over the previous four days and thought about future directions for the workshop series.


Reactions to the Participant/Evaluator’s Recommendations from 2004


In my evaluation of the 2004 NewSSC, I offered four recommendations for future workshops.  In this section, each of my recommendations from 2004 is followed by responses from the 2005 NewSSC participants (some participants did not respond to each item).


Recommendation 1: Increase expectations and opportunities for participant involvement prior to the workshop.


·      Would probably be ideal for participation but would be unrealistic.  I was very worried that preparation required would prevent me from attending - impossible during height of semester.

·      The Day 1 activity on resources was not a resource for the subsequent days but could be if done in advance.  Best way to get people to do that is through follow up phone calls.

·      This did not happen.  Breaking into pre-workshop time is daunting.

·      Expectancy, not expectations. Possibilities, not finished products.

·      This is desirable but not easy to achieve.  You have to find ways of involving people who will participate that will not take too much of their time. Perhaps circulating proposals for [the] schedule might be interesting…

·      I prepared some, but wish I had a bit more. Perhaps it would have helped if participants could suggest no more than 20-25 pages of reading a piece & it was put on very clean website as primary reading; and the secondary readings aside. And if we remembered to print everything.

·      Shape expectation - temper expectations, maybe - but keep the expectancy very high.  Specific expectations should be framed around sharing meaningful experiences, tools, tricks, and resources.

·      We could have generated…course ideas prior to the workshop.  Otherwise the amount of reading/preparation was optimal.


Interpretative summary. In general, the 2005 participants did not think it would be realistic to significantly increase the demands on participants prior to the workshop.  An alternative is a well-focused assignment that raises expectancy for the workshop.  This approach might make the workshop time more generative and could serve as one element of a strategy to enhance the continuity and long-term impact of the workshops series.


Recommendation 2: Shift a larger portion of Peter’s time and effort from organizing and leading toward participating.


·      Seems like this was achieved this time.

·      The most important part of this is to have an assistant organizer (apprentice organizer?) so that Peter doesn’t put off making phone calls, reading people’s work, etc.  The secondary part is logistics - offer a grad student a subsidy to come (& choose one who is good at seeing logistics w/o being micromanaged).

·      Moved in the right direction, still further to go, but there is a limit based on Peter’s willingness to let go of agenda setting.

·      Divide responsibilities among participants so there is no obvious divide [between] “organizers” and “participants”  à collaborative/support in more ways.

·      I agree with that. I think this was to some extent achieved this year by bringing Tom in to facilitate.

·      I didn’t think this was an issue.

·      I didn’t see this as a problem…Peter should not have to leave the group to get milk and sugar for the coffee or to pickup meals - this should be delegated - resource issues should be delegated.  Peter should really focus on process and content.

·      We could have heard a lot more about Peter’s writing and research!  He obviously held back a bit. His participation was excellent, however, and not overbearing (Vanity workshops are bad!)


Interpretative summary. Most of the participants did not think that Peter’s engagement in the workshop was hampered by administrative concerns.  Some participants did notice that he was sometimes occupied with tasks that could be handled by a graduate assistant.  In my view, administrative demands in preparation for the workshop do interfere with Peter’s efforts to help participants build personal and topical connections with one another before the workshop.  Shifting the administrative tasks to an assistant would free up Peter’s time to foster connections within the participant community prior to the workshop.  The objective to “stimulate new interdisciplinary projects and collaborations” would be furthered if participants arrive with relationships and shared interests already emerging.




Recommendation 3: Preserve the flexible scheduling and generous free time to allow for informal conversations, emergent collaborations, quiet contemplation, and rest.


·      About the right balance this year - we got the time we needed for it.

·      People’s need for more free time than we had was mostly to catch up on reading not done beforehand.

·      This was accomplished.  Perhaps need just a bit more free time in days 1-2 to allow getting to know you interactions.

·      Although I am exhausted, the tight schedule (even scheduled personal reading time) helped to keep the momentum à productivity in unexpected fashion.

·      I agree with that. I think, too, that this has been achieved with some success.  This is one of the strengths of the workshop.

·      I think I would have benefited from having more time scheduled to read and converse.

·      Yes - For a group this size!

·      There was optimal amount of free time! Too much free time makes us compete with home/work/shopping!


Interpretive summary.  The current workshop design successfully provides opportunities for private reflection, reading, and conversations within a full and tightly scheduled program.  The workshop effectively combines pre-planned activities with emergent activities that take shape as the workshop unfolds. The pre-planned activities give the participants time to develop relationships and identify shared interests, and model collaborative and critical thinking strategies that participants can use in the activities they plan later in the workshop.  The salient quality of the workshop is not large blocks of unstructured time, but the generative way in which initially open time gets filled as participants plan activities, interact informally, and work in private.


Recommendation 4: Make the research community-building goal of the workshop series more explicit to the participants.


·      I did not feel we were trying to build a research community except perhaps within science education - I guess this was not explicit last year either.

·      Is that a goal? Community-building, yes, bit perhaps a community of innovators in teaching first & secondarily research collaborators.

·      Not much change. Explicit community building goal could fit - not clear to me that Peter intends to shape shared research agendas.

·      This would require some more explicit intervention aimed at making the goal explicit and carrying that goal across the process of the workshop.  Not easy to do! There is some open-endedness that has to be retained so that the very [illegible text] community we aim at is an emerging construction.

·      Perhaps having periodic virtual or real reunions (e.g. at ISH[1]) But the follow-up listserv & Website could help.

·      Yes - as a workshop - skill building should be very visible - boundary-spanning skills are most important.  Adding mechanisms to assure a…continuity across years is important.

·      We could have designed one take-away collaboration that would not have occurred otherwise…


Interpretive summary.  It remains important to build a shared understanding of the workshop as means to create and sustain communities that reach across traditional institutional, disciplinary, and intellectual boundaries.  In the 2004 and 2005 workshops, people from diverse backgrounds found different ways to make the workshop personally meaningful and valuable.  Topics in both workshops moved freely among, and productively blurred the distinctions of, research and pedagogical perspectives and applications. Some participants engaged as researchers, others as educators, some as community activists, and others moved among all these standpoints.  The immediate experience in this environment was enriching and energizing for the participants.  The challenge now is to reach for a more sustained impact of “stimulat[ing] new interdisciplinary projects and collaborations.”  The workshop needs to remain an open and supportive environment for thinking across boundaries, while also more clearly focusing on productive interactions in the workshop will lead to specific products.  The goal of the workshop should not be to produce a document or other product after only four days.  This would undermine the emergent, open-ended quality of the experience and have little prospect of yielding anything of value.  The goal of the workshop should instead be to plant the seeds for collaborations that will yield significant products before the next workshop.


Science education/public understanding of science has been an important topical strand in the NewSSC and presents opportunities for sustained collaborations that would enhance the long-term impact of the workshop.  For many of the workshop participants, science education (broadly defined to include schooling, technical and popular media, informal education, and community activism) offers a more open and creative space for collaboration than is the case for traditional research programs, even in the interdisciplinary domains of science and technology studies. Most NewSSC workshop participants in 2005 and 2004 were in some way involved in teaching or public outreach activities related to science and society. The development of approaches and materials that apply science, technology and society studies to science education/public understanding of science and society is a field in which workshop participants could achieve significant personal and intellectual transformations while they make important scholarly and civic contributions through collaborative projects.


Reactions to 2004 NewSSC Participants’ Comments


At the end of the 2004 workshop, we asked each participant to synthesize their reactions in a paragraph that expressed the workshop’s strengths and weaknesses and suggested future directions (see  On the last day of the 2005 workshop, we gave those responses to the participants and asked them to react to the passages they found most striking. The following are themes and illustrative examples from the 2005 participants’ reactions to feedback from the 2004 workshop participants.


1.     The effect of the interactive, generative workshop processes.


·      Reacting to a comment from 2004 that the workshop “enabled a relaxed mind and therefore playfulness and creativity,” a 2005 participant appreciated that “no one was expert or critic, [which] allowed the process to be supportive, generative & restorative…”.  However, in response to the same text from 2004, another participant wrote, “My mind didn’t ‘relax’ because I didn’t have enough time to reflect, write, or read.”

·      A 2005 participant noted that the relationships formed at the workshop would “fortify my gradual transition from scientist to scientist/STS scholar.” 

·      A 2005 participant had “some doubts” initially, but wrote, “now that I have experienced this, I am a bit more hopeful for future events.”

·      Another wrote about how she set aside, for the time being, her familiar ways of exploring science and society “in the light of the emergent conceptual/procedural contributions of the workshop’s activities.”

·      A 2004 participant wrote: “I saw collaborations being born.” A 2005 participant replied that the workshop opened opportunities to meet people and begin collaborations, especially to women, minorities, and junior scholars, who are often “shut out” of such opportunities.

2.     The value of specific cases and other science, technology and society content.


·      A 2004 participant wrote, “I learned far more about STS…than I could ever imagine by attending a conference of comparable length.”  In the margin a 2005 participant noted, “I agree!”  But another participant wrote, “Could have learned more about topic of workshop if there’d been more” than two cases.

·      A 2005 participant developed and led an activity on how ‘scientific’ knowledge is transformed as it moves across technical and popular media.  Another participant wrote that this was “profound!”


3.     The outcomes and products of the workshops


·      A 2005 participant suggested that future workshops include “discussion of how what we did [in past workshops] was put to work.”

·      In 2004 a participant wrote, “very concrete plans emerged – we are going to organize an international conference on science and metaphor.”  A 2005 participant wondered, “did this actually ever happen?” The same participant reflected on the challenge of balancing demands for concrete products with the generative possibilities of an open-ended design: “we know – or rapidly learn – that the organizers don’t know how the event will end – maybe on a harmonic note (with closure) – or maybe on a dissonant note (with creative tension) or…”.


Interpretive summary. The workshop effectively used interactive, generative processes to help participants explore new ways of thinking about significant issues in science, technology and society.  Many participants in both 2004 and 2005 noted how ‘safe’ they felt to explore new ways of thinking and to take intellectual (and so, necessarily, personal) risks without fear of criticism.  The participants described their experiences as stimulating and rewarding.  It is less clear what participants will make of their experiences in the long run.  The participants’ comments from the past two years suggest the need to link the workshop to specific applications and products, using the workshops as (re)generative phases in continuing processes of individual and collaborative work.  As I suggested above, the expectation should not be to produce concrete products by the end of a workshop. This would greatly constrain the possibilities for exploration and open-ended development during those few, special days.  The workshop should, instead, be a time and place to launch and sustain individual and collaborative projects that will bridge the time between workshops and yield concrete products and applications for distribution beyond the NewSSC community.


Reactions to NSF Reviewers’ Comments


Also on the last day of the 2005 workshop, participants received the full text of NSF reviewers’ comments on a proposal by Peter Taylor to fund two workshops on the changing social uses of knowledge about genes, the environment, and development. The proposal received ratings of fair, good, very good/good, very good, and excellent from the five NSF reviewers.  The proposal was not funded.  One of the proposed workshops was the 2005 NewSSC that the participants had just completed. We asked workshop participants to comment on the NSF reviews, thinking especially about how best to address the reviewers’ critiques. The participants directed most of their responses to reviewers’ comments about the workshop processes, participants, and products.


1.     Workshop processes


The reviewer who gave the proposal its lowest rating of fair was concerned that the proposed workshops had too much unstructured time for reading, reflection, and autobiographical story-telling.  Warning that this format would “drive a scientist or genetic counselor bananas,” the reviewer believed that to attract scholars from outside STS, the workshop would need to be “tight, focused and well-structured.” One participant countered that the workshop “was rooted in the notion of emergence,” not in scripting everything in advance. Another maintained that scientists “would benefit most from this time for reflection.”


2.     Workshop participants


The reviewer who rated the proposal as fair had the impression that these conferences would be “by STSers for STSers–a way for people in the field to meet, talk, and get a few quiet hours away from teaching and other responsibilities…”  The reviewer warned that the workshops would “increase, not diminish, the insularity” of the field.  One participant responded “hah!” to the notion that the workshop was a few quiet hours away from work.  Another suggested that increased insularity was not a logical consequence of “STSers being the majority of participants.”  Several suggested that insularity could be avoided by focusing the workshop on educational and outreach strategies and materials to make STS perspectives more accessible to broader audiences. Another wrote, “Interesting synergies could be created if there would be a session or two held jointly with an all-biologist group at Woods Hole and/or a public/community forum.


3.     Workshop products


Several participants responded to reviewers’ calls to better define the products of the workshops, and to better anticipate the “’new directions’ that might emerge in the discussion of genes, environment, and development.”  One participant suggested, “Build in stipends for participants who go on to add units, activities, syllabi, reports of outreach to an ‘open source’ site.” Another suggested that the workshop ought to be “aimed at helping STSers develop tools for producing relevant knowledge & ways of communicating the knowledge.” Some participants suggested that a workshop be linked to a specific “’named’ product.”  Others suggested that the Internet could be used to document both the course of the workshops (e.g., a workshop blog) and to disseminate workshop products.


Interpretive Summary. Workshop participants see value and generative structures in emergent workshops that some NSF reviewers do not.  The participants’ appreciation for the workshop design points to a need to better describe ‘emergence’ as a means of developing the structure and processes of the workshop, rather than an absence of structure.  The profiles of workshop attendees demonstrate that both the 2005 and 2004 workshops were not STS for STSers, as one of the NSF reviewers worried.  Clearly, all those who attended had some interest in and/or experience with studies in the history, philosophy, and social studies of science, but participants came to the workshop from diverse vocational and avocational backgrounds.  Viewed from afar, a scientist, a community activist, and a sociologist who share an interest in science, technology and society may all look like STSers, but from the perspective of their own communities of practice, their participation in the workshop pushes them to step outside familiar ways of thinking and doing to construct shared understandings with one another.  At the 2005 workshop, the scientists in our group shared especially rich, revealing, and extended autobiographical accounts of their paths to the workshop.  There is no reason to believe that scientists as a group have no use (or time) for introspection and sense making about their lives and work.  Many of the workshop participants appeared willing to enlist in long-term collaborative projects to create materials that apply perspectives and approaches from the workshop.  The workshop did effectively “develop participants' skills and interest in engaging constructively beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries…”.   To achieve the objective of stimulating interdisciplinary projects, and to improve the prospects for external funding, the workshop needs to direct the experiential benefits described by participants into long-term collaborations that yield materials and approaches that are widely disseminated.




The following recommendations are drawn from the interpretive summaries in this report.


1.     A well-focused pre-workshop assignment would extend the period of the workshop and make the participants’ time together more productive.  Develop a modest pre-workshop assignment for all participants that will help them learn about one another and begin to identify shared interests to pursue during the workshop.


2.     Administrative demands before and during the workshop interfere with Peter’s efforts to facilitate participants’ substantive interactions.  The use of a workshop facilitator reduced demands on Peter’s time during the workshop, but he remained involved in administrative tasks that could be handled by a graduate assistant.  Use a graduate assistant to shift administrative tasks away from Peter before and during the workshop.


3.     The workshop design successfully provided opportunities for generative interactions, reflection, and reading within a tightly scheduled program. A salient quality of the workshop was not large blocks of unstructured time, but the generative way in which initially open time was filled as participants planned activities, interacted informally, and worked in private. Proposals for external funding might be strengthened by a more complete account of ‘emergence’ as a design principle that meets the needs of participants who want to use their time productively and efficiently.


4.     To better pursue the objective of stimulating interdisciplinary projects, and to improve the prospects for external funding, future workshops should direct the experiential benefits described by participants into long-term collaborations to produce materials and approaches that are widely disseminated. The goal of the workshop should be to plant the seeds for collaborations that will yield significant products before the next workshop. Science education/public understanding of science has been an important topical strand in the NewSSC and presents opportunities for sustained collaborations that would enhance the long-term impact of the workshop. The development of approaches and materials that apply science, technology and society studies to science education/public understanding of science is a field in which workshop participants could achieve significant personal and intellectual transformations while that make important scholarly and civic contributions through collaborative projects.


[1] “ISH” is the International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology