Ethics workshops for BSc students

by Julie Peacock (University of Leeds)

Where to start when teaching ethics to science students? Launch into a contrast of the theories of Bentham and Kant and your students may well think they’ve come to the wrong session; ignore these theories completely and you’re not giving students the tools to fully evaluate an ethical issue be it re-wilding of Scotland, GM crops, alien species, hunting and conservation or another issue.

For the last three years I have run a two hour workshop introducing research and environmental ethics to Foundation Level students. These intense sessions are just long enough to cover the basics and get students enthused about the subject, which they could then cover more fully at a higher level.

I find it’s useful to start to explain why we are looking at ethics – they are scientists not philosophers after all. For this I give several reasons: as scientists they need to understand what is acceptable practice; for their dissertations they will need to include a section on the ethical implications of their work; if they apply for grants in the future they are likely to have to address the ethics of their proposed project; as a science student friends and family may ask their opinion on a controversial environmental subject discussed in the news and it’s important they can give careful consideration to it. In addition to these reasons the QAA benchmark for Geography mentions ethics several times.

As a way into studying ethics I give students a handout based on an activity described in Matthews (2010). This is a philosophical thought experiment where student have to rank entities in order of their perceived value. The task starts with an opening paragraph, ‘Imagine a scenario in which a large container ship is rapidly sinking with only one remaining lifeboat. Nearby, certainly in range of the lifeboat, is a large forested island with a small human settlement. Your task is to decide in which order to place the following on the lifeboat…..’

Students work individually at first, and then discuss their rankings in small groups before a lively class debate follows on whether ‘a collie with a lame leg’ should be saved before ‘ten chickens’. Students discover there are a wide range of opinions in class even if individuals cannot explain fully the reasons for their rankings. With more time this could be extended and philosophical ideas drawn out see Matthews (2010) for ideas. We then look at another, more realistic scenario – ideas for these scenarios were originally taken from Downie (2010). With the scenarios I tell the students whether they are to think about reasons for or against the situation (rather than what their reaction is to it). This is to try and get students to think about ethical issues from another’s point of view.   I then get all the students arguing ‘for’ the issue to form a circle (or several circles depending on the number of students and the space available) facing outwards and all the students arguing ‘against’ the issue to form a circle around them, so each student is facing another ready to debate. Those arguing ‘for’ get 30 seconds to put down their main points and those against get the next 30 seconds to reply with their main points, followed by one minute of dialogue. Another scenario is then introduced and one circle moves to the left so students have a new partner for discussion.

After a few scenario based discussions we pull out some of the arguments for and against, ‘they have a right to..’, ‘we ought to…’ and ‘the outcome will be better if….’ I use these arguments to introduce deontology and consequentialism and their strengths and weaknesses.

The whistle stop tour of ethics usually results in a buzz around the class room and hopefully ensures the students have grounding in ethical thought, are more able to consider ethical issues from a different view point and will have inspired some to study it further.

If you are just beginning to get into teaching ethics to BSc students I would recommend Willmott, C.J.R (2011) Bioethics. In: Adams, D.J. Effective Learning in the Life Sciences. Chichester. Wiley-Blackwell, as a starting point. It’s actually written for bioscience students(!) but it’s ideas are adaptable to Physical Geography. Also, https://bioethicsbytes.wordpress.com/about/ a site which hosts a collection of resources to assist in the teaching of bioethics and for research misconduct see http://bioethicsbytes.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/examplesofresearchmisconduct.pdf

References:

Downie, R. (2010) Environmental Ethics: a Scenario-Based Approach. UK Centre for Bioscience Bulletin. 29, p3

Matthews, I. (2010) Articulating Values in Environmental Ethics. UK Centre for Bioscience Bulletin. 29, p2.

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