Honorary Degree: Paula S. Apsell
May 23, 2010
Citation Presented by Jeremy Vetter, Assistant Professor of History
Conferring of the Degree by William G. Durden '71, President
Paula S. Apsell
All of the students graduating here today were required to take (and pass!) at least two lab science courses in order to receive a degree—even a bachelor of arts degree—from Dickinson. More broadly, the dramatic transformation in the role of science and technology in modern life over the past two centuries has been paralleled by the increasing prominence of science courses throughout the education system, including colleges and universities.
Why do we require students to take courses in science? Answers to this question will vary, but surely one reason is to educate for citizenship in the modern world—recognizing the prominence of science in so many facets of democratic decision-making and everyday life. Indeed, the tension between the ideal of broad, participatory democracy and the rise of specialized scientific expertise constitutes an enduring theme—and problem—in the history of American science. An education in science can provide the foundation for a form of citizenship that is both better informed about science and capable of engaging in critical debate around its directions, priorities and social implications.
Science education does not—cannot—take place solely in the classroom, however. Public engagement with science beyond schools and colleges has been aided by the emergence of print, radio, television—and now also online—programs dedicated to presenting science to a wider public audience. The gold standard for television programming on science has been set by the NOVA series, for which Paula S. Apsell, who is standing before you today, has played a central role since the mid-1970s. She currently serves as the senior executive producer of NOVA and as director of the science unit at Boston’s WGBH. Like NOVA, Apsell herself has received a great many awards and accolades for her work in engaging the public with science, all of which stand as testimony not only to her great achievements in producing and advocating for excellent work but also in making serious science programming that stands out in a cluttered media landscape.
Paula Apsell (left) listens as President Durden confers the honorary degree.
The subject matter of Apsell’s work over the years has varied widely, from exploration and the living world to archaeology and natural disasters. She has even overseen the production of memorable courtroom drama as part of a Peabody Award-winning 2007 program on the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, which tore apart a small Pennsylvania town not far from here over whether “intelligent design” should be taught alongside evolution in public-school biology classrooms. Apsell’s work has thus not only captivated public audiences with the wonders of nature, but it has plunged right into very public controversies over science—in this case, with significant implications for science education itself. Moreover, as we here at Dickinson and people around the world begin to confront the transgenerational challenges posed by climate change and other looming environmental and sustainability problems, whose understanding is so deeply rooted in the sciences, we will continue to depend on citizen-leaders who are so gifted at engaging the public with science—like Paula Apsell and those she has inspired—in order to make possible a vigorous and sustained critical debate over the problems and prospects for the future of humanity.
Mr. President, it is my honor and pleasure to present to you Paula S. Apsell for the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science Education.
Paula S. Apsell, upon the recommendation of the Faculty to the Board of Trustees, and by its mandamus, I confer upon you the Degree of Doctor of Science Education, honoris causa, with all the rights, privileges, and distinction thereunto appertaining, in token of which I present you with this diploma and cause you to be invested with the hood of Dickinson College appropriate to the degree.