Choices and Challenges to get award from Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

October 24, 1999

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Doris Zallen saw that, while scientific discoveries were being used to promote human health, security, and comfort, they also were creating ethical and societal concerns. She started the Choices and Challenges public forum project at Virginia Tech to "explore the humanistic components of science and technology."

Zallen, a professor in the Science and Technology Studies program in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, has directed 19 Choices and Challenges forums since 1985. The series has been chosen to receive one of six awards from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH). The awards will be presented at VFH's Nov. 4 anniversary awards dinner in Richmond. At that time, VFH will be celebrating 25 years of cultivating the humanities in Virginia by honoring individuals and organizations that promote the humanities in the state. The theme of the anniversary is Building Bridges, Sowing Seeds.

Choices and Challenges forums have covered a wide spectrum of topics, from scientific studies that probe the nature of microscopic cells to space technologies that can probe the expanses of the solar system. They have included discussions of medical investigations that will have significant personal impact and engineering research capable of producing striking global consequences. Topics have ranged from "New Reproductive Options" to "Limits to Care of the Terminally Ill" to "Nuclear Power and Space Science" to "Designer Children."

The "Designer Children" program, for example, looked at new genetic-engineering procedures that now permit human genes to be identified and transferred. Researchers are developing these procedures to cure disorders and correct serious childhood health problems. But the techniques could also be used, before birth or during infancy, to endow otherwise healthy children with traits they would not otherwise possess or to enhance the ones they do have, including intelligence, athletic skills, personality, and behavior. The forum looked at questions such as "How do these recent advances in genetic engineering impact our ethical and social decisions concerning the 'reinventing' of children?" and "Is it ethical to create the 'perfect' baby through genetic technology, and who decides what 'perfect' means?"

The Choices and Challenges programs have become so popular that attendance now exceeds 500 each time. Audience comments praise the fact that the programs bring together people of varied backgrounds and perspectives "to investigate a topic of great importance in our society." Audience members also praise the choice of topics, the choice of speakers, the organization of the programs, and the level on which the programs were presented. The forums also are a form of national outreach through a partnership with PBS, which broadcasts the forums to audiences at nearly 700 sites throughout the United States.

"Doris's project is a bridge builder between science and society," said Sheryl Wade, director of development for the VFH anniversary celebration. "We wanted to honor organizations and projects that we have dealt with throughout the years that were either bridge builders or grew as a result of our seed money."

The VFH has worked with the Choices and Challenges forum series throughout the years. "The Choices and Challenges project exemplifies our theme," Wade said. The six winners were chosen from statewide projects over the 25-year period and are "very significant projects," Wade said. The VFH has helped fund many of the Choices and Challenges forums over the past 14 or 15 years, according to David Bearinger, associate director of VFH.

"VFH funding was especially crucial in the early years," Zallen said. "When it was hard to get support, the VFH funding allowed the program to go forward."

The award focuses not only on the forums, but also on Zallen's work in organizing them, Wade said. "The success that Doris has had and the innovative steps she has taken encouraged us to have a teachers' institute here {in Charlottesville}," Bearinger said. "It was a statewide curriculum institute for teachers of science and humanities in which they considered the issues raised by science and technology and the role of science and technology. Doris was a member of faculty for this course and an advisor to the project overall.

Zallen's Choices and Challenges series has received two national awards in addition to the VFH award: the 1988 Frandson Competition of the National University Continuing Education Association for "creative and innovative programs in the humanities" and the designation "Program of Excellence" by that organization.

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities is a statewide non-profit organization headquartered in Charlottesville. It is dedicated to developing, sponsoring, and producing scholarship and educational programs in the public interest and creates opportunities for personal reflection and civic debate. Its Grant Program awards funds for conferences, seminars, exhibits, lectures, film, video, and audio productions, and other public humanities projects. "During its 25 years, the Virginia Foundation has helped numerous organizations begin new programs in the humanities, many of which flourished far beyond their original conception," according to Robert Vaughan, president of VFH. The programs being honored "have added immeasurably to the cultural life of the Commonwealth."
Ticket information for the awards dinner is available at 804-924-3296.

Virginia Tech

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