Major gift transforming science, technology studies with help from the humanities

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Visionary donors have lasting impact on bridging science with the humanities at UW-Madison

[caption id="attachment_8254" align="alignright" width="391" caption="The late Robert and Jean Holtz left behind a legacy with their gifts to the Holtz Center, which studies the relationship between science, technology and society. Photo courtesy of UW Foundation."]Robert and Jean Holtz[/caption]

In 1940, there weren’t any laptops in dorm rooms or mainframes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Department of Computer Sciences – one of the oldest in the nation – would not celebrate its first birthday for another 24 years.

But things were starting to change in information studies, technology and science.  It was a gradual change and it left an impact on Robert Holtz who studied at UW-Madison and graduated with a BS’40, MS’43 in electrical engineering.

Bob wasn’t a student in the College of Letters & Science, but he had an interest in the arts and humanities and a curiosity about the larger world.  He married his high school sweetheart, Jean, and carried his values into a long career in engineering.

Bob and Jean's nephew, David Epstein, said, "Throughout his life, my uncle remembered the importance of the education he received from UW and that it allowed him to do and accomplish, both personally and professionally.  No matter how far he traveled, he always came back to and acknowledge the importance of his home, Milwaukee, and his education from UW."

Over the course of his life, Bob became keenly aware of the tension between scientific and technological progress and unintended consequences of such progress for the larger society – an issue that remains relevant today.

Before his death he wrote, “Science and technology move at a rate that creates social and political problems faster than we know how to handle them — but tailoring science and technology to certain limits is not possible. Research moves without reference to limits; if we don’t go ahead, someone else will. There is a need for nontechnical people to develop a better way to handle the resulting problems.”

In the 1990s, Bob and Jean made an initial commitment that created the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies at UW-Madison.  The interdisciplinary center, which opened in 2001, is home to programs that investigate the interplay between science, technology and society.  The center is a cross-college partnership with the College of Letters & Science, the College of Engineering, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the School of Medicine and Public Health.

Bob passed away in 1996 and Jean in 2009.  Now, a generous estate gift from the Holtz Family is continuing to support the Center and their programs on campus.

“Everything we do will be enriched by the gift from the Holtz Family,”said Daniel Kleinman, director of the Holtz Center and a professor of Community and Environmental Sociology. “We are now working to implement programs [the Holtzes] would have wanted—programs that take a coordinated approach to teaching the liberal arts and to help others understand science and technology studies in society.”

College of Letters & Science Dean Gary Sandefur notes that decades ago the Holtzes understood that the humanities play an integral role in science and engineering.

“Science and technology are moving a rapid pace and by infusing the humanities into teaching, research and service we add a component of compassion, empathy and respect.  This is increasingly important as we work to educate students in our knowledge economy,” Sandefur said. “I am so thankful to the Holtzes and their legacy.”

The Holtz Center offers a unique certificate for undergraduates -- Integrated Studies in Science, Engineering and Society or ISSuES – that gives students a chance to explore science and technology studies in a cluster of three courses designed around a focus including ethics, leadership, design or a general focus.

The Holtz Center is also bolstering programs that benefit faculty members and graduate students by funding an outreach fellowship in 2012-13, Kleinman noted.  In addition, the center will support graduate research in science and technology studies by offering a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in 2012-14, and will host a graduate student conference this spring.

Kleinman said these expanded programs for faculty and students will not only improve the learning experience for undergraduate students, but it will also make the Holtz Center visible to the larger community.

Some examples of upcoming Holtz Center outreach activities include:

  • Brown bags showcasing faculty and student work, such as Prof. William Aylward’s presentation in January titled, “Lifting Technology and the Achievement of Greek and Roman Architecture.” Aylward is professor of Classics and a new faculty affiliate for the Holtz Center. His presentation focused on the construction process used in ancient Greece and Rome.
  • Visiting speakers from other universities, including one lead by Prof. Paul Edwards of University of Michigan’s Department of History, titled "Climate Controversies: Data, Models, and the Politics of Global Warming,” held in October.
  • Co-sponsored lectures with other departments and units through the university.

Story by Holly Hartung, College of Letters & Science