"New Science" and Societal Issues: Considering the Ethics of Nanosensors

By Gardner, Grant; Jones, M. Gail et al. | The Science Teacher, October 2009 | Go to article overview

"New Science" and Societal Issues: Considering the Ethics of Nanosensors


Gardner, Grant, Jones, M. Gail, Falvo, Mike, The Science Teacher


One of the daily challenges teachers face is how to go about preparing students as the next generation of scientifically literate citizens. As such, students not only need knowledge of science and technology, but also the ability and motivation to participate in public discourse. By providing students with scenarios that describe complex social problems associated with new science applications, they are better able to bridge science content with common social dilemmas. In addition, complex social issues provide opportunities for teachers to make science meaningful and relevant to students' lives.

Nanotechnology is an effective platform for teaching about science, technology, and society (STS) issues because it is an interdisciplinary field that spans biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering and is appropriate in various content courses. As a "new science," it has brought many nanoscale-based applications to the forefront of society. This article describes one such application--a nanosensor that can precisely detect a variety of chemical stimuli in the environment--and presents the science behind it as an interdisciplinary science topic. This article also provides scenarios that can be used in the class to discuss the unique ethical concerns associated with nanosensors.

Science, technology, and ethics

We live in a world where information is no more than a button-click away. This ubiquitous access to knowledge began with the advent of the internet and the World Wide Web. Now, with the proliferation of handheld wireless devices, we can obtain information just by reaching into our pockets. There are many obvious benefits to being able to access information quickly and efficiently. However, as with any new technology, these benefits can also be associated with risks. For example, increased access to digital information and our reliance upon it as a data-storage tool has led to cyber crimes such as identity theft. And because of powerful search engines and social networking sites, almost anyone's personal information is no more than a click away, jeopardizing our personal privacy.

Information technology is not the only "new science" that has allowed for more efficient access and detection of information. The emergent science of nanotechnology is allowing for finer sensing and tracking of information at the molecular and atomic levels. With the advent of this technology comes numerous ethical questions: Who will benefit from these technologies, and who will be harmed? Will this technology violate anyone's rights or undermine trust? Are there alternative technologies that would yield a more favorable risk-to-benefit ratio?

Issues in the classroom

You may be uncomfortable bringing up controversial and ethical issues in the classroom because they require us to move outside of teaching about science content to addressing issues of morals and values. However, teachers can encourage students in the decision-making process by helping them evaluate evidence, respectfully consider alternative opinions, overcome prejudices, and communicate their own views reasonably and effectively (Chowning 2005). In addition, the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) call for teachers to provide students with a solid understanding of the ethical implications of science and the human context in which they occur. Basic science concepts and principles set the stage for active debate of issues involving economics, politics, and ethics.

Just as ethical discussions can be difficult for teachers, students may be hesitant to openly express their moral and personal views in a classroom setting. It is important to create a "safe space" for students by providing explicit guidelines for confidentiality, discussion modes, and group interactions (Cohen, McDaniels, and Qualters 2005). Cohen and colleagues (2005) also suggest that teachers use ethical discussions to help students identify and address ethical concerns and to engender confidence and competence in the exploration of these issues; their article is an excellent resource in preparing for ethical classroom discussions (Cohen, McDaniels, and Qualters 2005). …

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