How to Have a Successful Science and Ethics Discussion: Three Key Components for Effective Classroom Bioethics Experiences

By Chowning, Jeanne Ting | The Science Teacher, December 2005 | Go to article overview

How to Have a Successful Science and Ethics Discussion: Three Key Components for Effective Classroom Bioethics Experiences


Chowning, Jeanne Ting, The Science Teacher


Most of the secondary science teachers who shy away from incorporating ethics into their curricula are quite clear about the reasons they do so. Some teachers are uncomfortable with teaching ethics, a subject that science teachers often have very little experience with. Ethics as a discipline is full of unfamiliar terms and its own jargon. Other teachers fear classroom discussions getting out of control, degenerating into a battle of opinions, or having parents and administrators confuse teaching about values and morals with teaching particular values and morals. In addition, something as seemingly subjective as ethics can be perceived as somewhat out of place in a science classroom, where the focus is ostensibly on objectivity: "Why are we studying values in science class?" Ethics, to many teachers, seems like just one more element in an already crowded curriculum.

For the past six summers, the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) has provided an in-depth weeklong professional development program for teachers titled "Ethics in the Science Classroom." This program, funded by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health, has provided nearly 150 teachers with background in ethical reasoning and science content related to controversial issues. In addition, these teachers have prepared lessons related to ethics and science for use in their classrooms. Over 30 such lessons are available online at www.nwabr.org. The website also provides the preliminary draft of an Ethics Primer, a resource guide containing interactive lesson ideas and background on ethics as a discipline. Through this workshop and subsequent discussions with teachers, we have developed a model that focuses on the three key components for successful classroom bioethics experiences. In this article, I will review each component and discuss its use in the classroom.

Why incorporate ethics into science teaching?

Students often come to class discussions with preformed opinions on many ethical issues. The challenging task for teachers is to help students learn to identify the facts of a case, recognize the underlying ethical dilemmas, and to understand the different perspectives involved. Most students lack familiarity with ethics as a discipline and consequently are unable to articulate their stance or participate in a reasoned discussion about ethical issues in science. The role of the teacher includes encouraging students in their personal decision-making process while helping them learn to listen respectfully to the positions of others, to overcome prejudices, and to communicate their dissenting opinions reasonably and effectively. In such an educational setting, students are empowered to apply the same kinds of ethical reflection and critical thinking to difficult situations they encounter elsewhere in their lives.

Because bioethical issues offer no single right answers or simple solutions, they foster an understanding of the importance of logic and reason when approaching complex problems. Ethics provides an authentic, motivating context for understanding science and its relevance.

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Three components are key to promoting effective discussions related to ethics and science: content and lesson strategies, a decision-making model, and a familiarity with ethical perspectives. These elements are represented in Figure 1 (p. 48).

Content

The content provides the "hook" for student engagement. Case studies make excellent starting points for ethical discussions and can be found in textbooks, on specialized websites such as www.bioethics.net, or can be taken directly from the news. Several publishers such as Green-haven Press and McGraw Hill provide position papers on ethical issues related to science. Teachers who have participated in NWABR's program have had success beginning a discussion with a movie or a vignette from a movie such as Gattaca. …

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