Since 1998, students taking the course GE301: Science, Technology,
and Society undertake term projects in the nature of community
Although it is not uncommon in European countries for university students
to receive college credit for participating in community research,
this may very well be the first time the concept has been integrated
into a course as a term project.
We all know the close relationships between science, technology,
industry, and the economy. When people speak of science today, what
comes to mind are usually big and expensive projects which have
captured the imagination: space exploration, chemicals and
pharmaceuticals, electronics and information technology, and the human
genome project. As greater and greater wealth is being poured into
such research, the discontent felt by ordinary people increases. They
are at the same time impressed and disillusioned by the exponential
progress, which despite the many conveniences its brings, somehow
falls short of solving what they feel to be their real and immediate
problems and improving their conditions.
Though quietly, a new concept has been emerging in Europe and more
slowly in the United States, as an answer to this dilemma. It is
called community research. It is contrasted with what its advocates
call ``Big Science'': research heavily funded by governments and
corporations and practiced by professional scientists, but which they
believe do not serve the more immediate needs of the people. In the
words of the Loka Institute, a small organization based in the United
``. . . community-based research is intended to empower
communities and to give everyday people influence over the direction of
research and enable them to be a part of decision-making processes
affecting them. Community-based research is rooted in communities.
Communities often identify the issue or problem and
participate in defining the research question, conducting the
research, and finally, using the results
toward an action-oriented outcome. Our definition of community-based
research is: research conducted by, with, or for communities.''
(See www.loka.org for more information.)
Since knowledge is ultimately pursued by people for the sake of people
it is important to ensure that common people are actively involved in
solving their own problems and that they are knowledgeable enough to
have a say in which areas they want public research money to be spent.
Community research is about the use of knowledge and ideas and
creativity to solve human problems, it is about bringing science down
to the people.
The 160+ engineering students taking GE301 were required to propose and undertake a project of this nature in groups of 8-12 students. Some of the projects they have undertaken are shown in the list below. However, these should not be taken as representative of the broad spectrum of possibilities. Community research can take the form of social science type research, but it can also take the form of engineering research (e.g. producing a certain software to serve a certain need not served by the software market). See the Loka home page for more examples.
The students were definitely motivated by the real life nature of
the project and the concrete aims. Although few of the projects
actually produced and presented results complete and convincing enough
that one might actually consider putting them into practice,
consideration of the educational value embedded in the process
gives us the courage to continue working on the concept.
If you, as an individual, a club, or a group, would like to design and
work on a research project to generate information, knowledge,
techniques, or practices that would benefit your community, I would be
pleased to discuss your ideas with you and see if I can help you get
started, or refer you to someone who can. Here, ``community'' may
mean a particular group of students, a district of the city or your
home town, or even larger. (If you took GE301, you might want to
continue the project you started.)
Remember: community research, in contrast to ``Big Science,'' does not
require a PhD, but commitment.