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I Usually Resist Tribalism, but I’m So Proud of My School’s Students!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I lack the tribalism gene. I don’t identify strongly, emotionally, with clusterings of people, whether nation, religion, ethnic group, profession or sports team (although decades ago I endured the horror of being a Mets fan).

Student pitches her senior-design project to onlooker at Stevens Institute.

I have rational reasons for resisting tribal attachments. While they promote beneficial bonding among tribal members, they also provoke conflicts with non-members, which can be literally lethal. And I resist identifying too closely with the science tribe out of concern that I’ll be a less objective journalist.

But I’m feeling so much pride about the school that employs me that I have to gush. I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology, which trains young people who want to become engineers (primarily), as well as financial analysts, physicists, physicians, philosophers, historians, musicians—maybe even science communicators!

As the semester winds down, several events on campus have gotten my oxytocin flowing. First was an exhibition of projects designed by teams of seniors, who were all dressed up and eager to pitch their projects–many of which were gratifyingly green.

These included a scheme (developed by, among others, David D’Agostino, leader of the Stevens Green Team, which promotes environmental causes on campus) for converting food waste into gas, fertilizer and other useful byproducts; a plan (which team leader Bryan Nesci pitched persuasively to me) for highly efficient “vertical farming” in urban areas; and a solar-powered system for distributing water to farmers in underdeveloped regions. (For more on these and other projects, see this write-up.)

Next was a ceremony for winners of a creative writing contest sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters (my humanities-oriented sub-tribe at Stevens) and overseen by my colleague Prof. Billy Middleton, a fiction writer himself. The winners read their work, and I was astonished and moved by their eloquence, wit and courage, especially because their writing was so candid and intimate.

The winners in poetry were Joseph Risi (honorable mention), Melanie Panosian (second prize) and Kyle Gonzalez (first prize); and in prose Sean Balanon (honorable mention), Kyria Johnson (second prize) and Chris Chiu (first prize).

Then there were final papers of students in the three courses I taught this semester. Sure, some papers made me wince, but others heartened me, including the following, which you can read on my course blogs:

*Amira Dardir on how chemical firms like Monsanto control research into and hence criticism of their products, notably genetically modified foods;

*Frankie Guarini on the efforts of a long-haired visionary to create real artificial intelligence;

*Anthony Fontana on what the “Internet of Things” might do to our last remaining shreds of privacy;

*Caitlin Kulig on a biological phenomenon called RNA interference, which raises questions about the safety of genetically modified foods.

In my courses, I rub students’ faces in the problems–militarism, inequality, pollution, spiraling health care costs, political corruption—that my generation is bequeathing them. Then I tell them that that I’m confident their generation will solve or at least ameliorate these problems. And I mean it.

We teachers all have bad weeks, when we get down on ourselves and our students. Last week was a good week, which made me glad to be a member of the Stevens tribe–and of the human race.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. M Tucker 3:19 pm 05/7/2014

    Caitlin Kulig on a biological phenomenon called RNA interference, which raises questions about the safety of genetically modified foods.

    Zhang’s study is not yet accepted by the wider community of experts. Kulig is not one of those experts. Zhang’s study makes an extraordinary claim and it will require extraordinary evidence to convince the majority of molecular biologists. Kulig seems to be an activist and not an objective investigative journalist.

    I ignore activists unless they happen to be experts.

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  2. 2. cpetit 12:12 pm 05/8/2014

    John,
    Great column on your school’s students’ imagination and industry, quite encouraging, and it is good to get a glimpse at what you do there. But you must know that it is against the unwritten but inherent portions of the American constitution to be rabidly tribal, to the point of brawls and other violence, about your Stevens Ducks.

    That would require a football team.

    - Charlie

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  3. 3. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 6:04 pm 05/8/2014

    Charlie, thanks for classing up the comments. Re your remarks, football is so old school. Our Ducks play lacrosse!

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  4. 4. rshoff2 1:33 pm 05/13/2014

    You’re lucky to be spared the ‘tribal’ instinct. But for those of us who are not, we can apply higher level brain function to overcome it. Or at least keep it in check. Education is a great cornerstone. Keep on teachin’.

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