Faculty Directory

Contact Information

Office:
Salisbury Laboratories, 310F
Phone: +1-508-831-5578
Fax: +1-508-831-5896
jmwilkes@wpi.edu

John McCamy Wilkes

John Wilkes is a sociologist of Science and Technology who is a part of the interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS) and was for 5 years the Executive Director of the International Association for Science, Technology and Societies Studies (IASTS). Two of his courses are designated STS rather than SOC (sociology) though they do carry social science credit.

His particular area of study in this field tends to be policy related and includes the nuclear power debate, space policy (especially the case for a lunar base), the experience of women in the sciences, the debate about the value of the SAT for college admissions, gender differences in career aspirations of high school students, forecasting the future of aerospace and robotics technology, and technological literacy in the general public through reform of science education.

His special expertise lies in the interface of sociology and psychology as he studies cognitive styles, learning styles, and research styles. Specifically, he applies work drawn from the fields of creativity and personality research in psychology to the questions of scientific accomplishment at the individual, team, and disciplinary level. However, his focus is sociological as he is preparing to map the cognitive distribution of the elite and stars in each field at a given point in time described in terms of the paradigm state (degree of consensus, theoretical integration and predictive power) of a scientific field.

Applications of the cognitive styles research range from the study of computer hacking and computer programming styles, to SAT and MCAS (state achievement test) performance, to the freshman year experience in a college of engineering, to career choices, to team dynamics in an R and D setting, to enhancing the Delphi study technique of forecasting technological advancement, and the likelihood of breakthroughs in a field of study. He has also done gender comparative studies taking cognitive differences into account.

Though he uses the MBTI ( Myers Briggs type Indicator) regularly, he tends to focus on the experience of 4 types of learners, not the 16 types normally defined by this measure. He received the Isabel Myers Research Award for his work on the SAT debate using Worcester Public School data from the classes of 1997-1999 and his profiling of the WPI classes of 2001-2003.

Another major distinction between his work and that of others in the field is his work with the late Gerald Gordon of Cornell (Wilkes' dissertation adviser) and later at Boston University where Gordon chaired the Sociology Department and ran a technology and Policy Center. Together they worked on two major NSF grants, and through them refined a new cognitive styles indicator now called the Gordon-Mednick Cognitive Styles Indicator. It merges the work of Gerald Gordon on the development of the Social Differentiation measure with that of Sarnoff Mednick on the Remote Associates Test. The current version of the GNCS was devised by Wilkes and that is now the standard in the field. It debuted in the Worcester Studies of the Worcester Public School and WPI student populations. The use of the GMCS and MBTI together in these studies was unique and allowed their correlations and interaction effects to be ascertained for the first time. The high school studies are also the only existing basis for estimates of the GMCS distribution in the general population. Gordon tended to study small elite groups of scientists in industry and academia. Wilkes was the one who wanted whole populations of undergraduate and graduate student majors at the college level and later moved to the study of high school populations in his SAT studies.

Wilkes is known for being an interdisciplinary scholar, and sometimes takes this to extremes. He was the chairman or vice chairman of the New England Chapter of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics for 5 years.

Wilkes then ended up as team leader of "Team Goddard" the Worcester group based at WPI that entered the 2010 Shiftboston lunar base architectural contest to devise a circa 2069 second generation lunar base for 60 people at the south pole of the moon. The "Craterville" entry by Team Goddard tied for first place in the "technical feasibility" prize category with an entry from Hong Kong by Tom Schmidt. In combination, these two designs had such interesting possibilities that they were presented side by side at the next AIAA national meeting in Long Beach California. Out of 102 entries to the contest, there were only 20 that were "feasible;" Shiftboston has asked Wilkes to help run the next lunar base contest and get that number up to at least 80% technically feasible.

Wilkes is splitting his time working with Architects, Science Educators, and Aerospace Experts at the moment, as he plans an architectural student contest to convert the top designs from the last competition into an educational exhibit of a simulated lunar base on Earth for 5th to 10th graders in the Central Mass region. He also dabbles in Worcester City politics and has served on the City Manager's Advisory Commission on the Status of Women, the only male thus far to do so.

It was during this period that his IQP teams carried out the first two high school aspirations study of Worcester Juniors and of course did so in a gender comparative fashion, reporting out their findings to the City Commission. An experimental intervention involving the creation of female-friendly future science and engineers clubs at the various high schools in Worcester was showing promising results when he retired from the ACSW. Unfortunately, there was no one positioned to continue this work, as it required being able to get college credit for students willing to work on outreach projects for the city.

Research Interests

  • Space Policy
  • Nuclear Power Debate
  • Cognitive Styles
  • Technology Forecasting and Assessment

Education

  • BS, Bates College, 1970
  • MA, Cornell University, 1973
  • PhD, Cornell University, 1976

Featured Publications

  • "A Cognitive Interpretation of the Marginality of Women in Science" with Gabriel Haim. Paper presented at the Midwest Sociological Association, April 9, 1981. Revised for journal publication, Journal of Higher Education, accepted January 1988.
  • "Comparisons of Male and Female Student Aspirants to a Scientific Career: Perceptions of Promising Science Talents", International Journal of Comparative Sociology, (co-author Gabriel Bar-Haim), 1989.
  • "Tradeoffs in Student Satisfaction: Is the 'Perfect' Course an Illusion?", The Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, forthcoming in 1993, Miller, J., Wilkes, J. Goodwin, L., Cheetham, R., Oxford, Ohio.
  • "Characterizing Niches and Strata in Science by Tracing Differences in Cognitive Style Distribution," Chapter 10 in The Social Psychology of Science, Shadish, W., and Fuller, S., The Guilford Press, New York, 1994.
  • “Why Sociology Courses Combined with a Required STS Project are Mutually Enhancing: The WPI Experience” ( with Campisano) in Hartman (ed.) INTEGRATING THE SCIENCES AND SOCIETY: CHALLENGES, PRACTICES AND POTENTIALS” Vol 19 in Research in Social Problems and Public Policy (2008), Emerald Press

Professional Highlights

  • Isabel Myers Research Award
  • First Place in a Lunar Base Contest
  • Pioneer in field of Astro-sociology
  • ASEE-NASA Fellowship
 
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