Humanities and Social Relevance for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Students
John M. Prausnitz
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and Center for Studies in Higher Education
About the project

This project concerns undergraduate chemistry and chemical engineering education. Its goal is to prepare educational materials on the interface between chemical technology and society for use by chemical engineering or chemistry professors in their regular courses.

For effective practice in industry, government or education, chemists and chemical engineers today and tomorrow must understand how technology interacts with the society that it serves. Chemists and chemical engineers need to understand (and be sensitive to) the culture in which they practice their profession. Because chemists and chemical engineers increasingly interact with a variety of people who often have little or no scientific background, chemical and chemical engineering education must expose students to the cultural implications of chemical science and practice.

All too often, current methods for including humanities and social studies in chemical and chemical engineering education have limited success because these subjects are taught apart from regular science and engineering courses; there is a lack of integration. In large universities, professors who teach history, philosophy, literature, etc. are rarely interested in the education of scientists and engineers. Further, special (service) courses for students outside the College of Letters and Science are usually taught by part-time lecturers; these courses are often not taken seriously because they (and their instructors) carry no academic prestige. Regrettably, all too often, the chemistry and chemical engineering faculty has little interest in such courses, regarding them as a “nuisance” or, at worst, a “waste of time.” As a result, chemistry and chemical engineering students tend to see little or no connection between humanities or social studies requirements and their regular courses in science and engineering.

A possible alternative or supplement for teaching humanities and social studies to chemists and chemical engineers is provided by the Leonardo Project: to introduce relevant social and humanistic content directly into existing courses in chemistry and chemical engineering. This alternative (or supplement) suggests that, occasionally, in a given lecture, a professor may devote (say) 10 or 15 minutes to show how a particular science or engineering topic interacts with human concerns as indicated by history, or politics, or ethics, or religion, etc. The Leonardo Project suggests that, typically, the professor may do so twice a month. However, to do so, the professor needs help; he or she needs case studies or examples. The goal of the Leonardo Project is to prepare and provide short case studies (reports) that cover a wide range of technology-society interactions. These reports illustrate that chemical technology is not apart from, but a part of, our humanistic and social culture; they are available here and can be accessed free of charge.


The Leonardo Project reports are available as PDF downloads. Reports are organized by category.