The Case for a Social Sciences Research Lab at TJHSST

Photo from: https://www.tjhsst.edu/~sjfrank/pictures/dome%20in%20to%20out.JPG

People grow up wondering and pondering about different things. I’ve always thought of TJ as a place that nurtures this innate inquisitiveness with its emphasis on science and scientific thinking, a place that equips us with the fundamentals needed to think critically at a broad level but then allowing us to hone in on particular topics that interest us.

I’ll be the first to admit that the vast majority of research opportunities at TJ weren’t particularly my cup of tea. I didn’t grow up wondering about neurons or neutrons or circuits or stars (just to name a few). Perhaps because of my experience growing up in a second culture, perhaps because of my personal insecurities, I grew up constantly pondering and wondering about people and why they think and say and do what they do they do, why some things that are completely normal in one culture or context are abnormal in another, and what that all meant. Also, as a huge movie, music, and video game nerd, I thought an awful lot about how and why such media made us feel and think the way we do.

I never got the feeling that there was much room for research along those lines at TJ. Both psych and AP psych had been stigmatized as, to varying degrees, joke “filler” classes, and I’d heard numerous times that requests for a social sciences lab had been shot down by administration. The research lab TJ had closest to my interests – my home lab, videotech, or, excuse me “communication systems” – seemed to be plagued by a similar social stigma among the students of being for “slackers” – though how such a “slacker” program so consistently got students into the <5%-acceptance-rate top film school in the world, the world may never know.

I could have easily given up research for good after high school; the undergraduate game design division program at my alma mater certainly wasn’t a place that concerned itself much with research and scientific thinking. I remember the distinct feeling of “meh” I felt initially in my master’s program when I realized I’d have to write research papers again.

But that feeling soon dissipated as the old research gears in my brain got cranking – certainly not the only occasion I’ve been grateful for my TJ training – and I discovered that it wasn’t that I was ambivalent about research, it was that I had never learned of the field that properly excited me about it. In my first communication class, I was exposed to research on persuasion, attitude change, framing, media effects – all the things I thought about on a day to day basis. Realizing that it was possible to do research in this field that really called out to me… it was a breathtaking revelation.

Eventually I began to wonder why there had been no social sciences research lab at TJ, one of the best schools at which to study science, to turn me on to this field of science earlier on in my life. Sure, it didn’t involve fancy microscopes or lasers or circuitry, but as far as I saw, the process of critical, analytical thinking was the same. The same principles of scientific thought, of breaking down complex systems into their component factors and gathering empirical evidence of their effects on each other, that kind of thinking doesn’t just come in handy when studying the elements, motion, or light; it comes in handy, too, when studying people, thought, behavior, media influence, institutions, and so much more.

The social sciences are a science as much as any other, though I’m sure STEM elitists may disagree. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to do research that comes up new vaccines, treatments, gadgets, and mechanisms – such advancements have no doubt greatly improved the quality of life for all of humankind and will continue to do so. But it’s equally as important to consider how these new scientific and technological innovations affect us as people and affect how we as people interact with other people. Social sciences help us understand not only this interaction between technology and people, but interaction between people, their thoughts and behavior, and all the institutions, policies, technologies, cultures, and systems that shape and are shaped by them. The social sciences affect us every time we look at the Gallup polls, read a Pew Research Center report, and, these days in the era of big data, do pretty much anything on digital services that collect data about our behavior. Furthermore, with science touching on ever-more-complicated topics that affect not only daily life but the long-term prospects of humankind and the planet, the science of science communication will only grow increasingly important in communicating to the public the effects of our actions on the world we live in and what must be done to stem the deleterious effects of our actions.

Let me be clear, this is not a post claiming the greater importance of any particular field compared to another. No, this is a call for equal recognition of the field of social sciences by a school that takes pride in offering the best of resources, guidance, and support for students interested in the sciences. Students interested in the social sciences should have just opportunity pursue and develop their research interests at Thomas Jefferson in the same way that students interested in other fields of science are able to.

How many TJ students over the years, potentially brilliant social scientists, have been led to think that maybe research isn’t for them simply because they aren’t aware that social science research is a viable option? And how many future TJ students, aspiring researchers that TJ could otherwise nurture onto the path of making groundbreaking discoveries within the social sciences will be led to think the same? I know that if I’d had more information, encouragement, and options in terms of doing social science research – including but not limited to topics like interpersonal communication, organizational communication, management research, social psychology, media psychology, critical analysis of media, etc. – my mind would have been blown and my research fire would have been fanned even earlier on.

There’s the question of what kind of topics and methods would be taught – the term “social sciences” encompasses many formally designated fields of research and all sorts of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. But in my opinion, that’s the beauty of the social sciences, and one of the reasons I decided to pursue the field of communication – it’s what you make of it, and you can tie together insights from all sorts of different fields and methodologies to really dig into a subject. A broad survey course sequence, Intro to Social Science Research I and II, that introduces a wide breadth of topics, theories, and quantitative and qualitative research methods would serve as an apt core prerequisite for the yearlong senior research lab, perhaps alongside a selection of other co-requirements depending on the direction which the student wishes to take his/her program of research (e.g. AP Psych if they wish to study social psychology, Computer Graphics if they wish to study media effects, etc.). In addition, in the modern era of affordable biometrics and big data, technology as never been more tightly integrated into the social sciences, and the sheer potential for interdisciplinary research pursuits in collaboration with the other phenomenal research labs at TJ is just mindboggling – and lemme tell you as someone who recently applied for grad schools, “interdisciplinary” is the thing you want to be these days.

Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the New York City specialized high schools and also an NCSSSMST peer institution, at least at one point put out their own social sciences research journal. And if it’s possible anywhere, if any excuses are irrelevant anywhere – because I’m sure at some point in time people were saying, “How can you have/get the equipment for an optics/marine bio/neuroscience/whatever lab at the high school level?!!” – it’s at the wonderful institution that is TJ. The time is long overdue for the creation of a social sciences research lab at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Danny is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

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