Teaching Ethics Should Be a STEM Essential
A MiddleWeb Blog
Mays was referencing a dangerous water pollution crisis in Flint, Michigan where some children are experiencing elevated levels of lead in their blood and the lead levels in some drinking water samples are so high they are defined as hazardous waste. The lead-laced water appeared after city officials decided to end a water supply contract with Detroit as a cost-saving measure and take water from the Flint River instead.
Lead poisoning in children causes developmental and behavioral problems, and, according to the Detroit Free Press, it has taken 16 months for Flint officials to take action. In at least three Flint elementary schools children have been drinking lead-contaminated water during those 16 months as have residents of homes throughout Flint.
The Detroit Free Press describes this as a clear example of a trade-off: downgrading some services to save money vs. the risk of increasing health problems among the population. These are among the types of decisions that our students will one day confront as STEM professionals or in other capacities.
Think about the escalating crises your students will tackle as workers in this nation alone. Right now over 50,000 Americans die each year due to air pollution. Our students will deal with decisions involving food shortages, housing shortages, cloning, adapting to climate change, drones, availability and affordability of medicines, data chip implants, genetic testing, and hundreds more. Are they prepared to make those decisions ethically?
The shortfall in STEM ethics emphasis
A child’s earliest exposure to morals, values, and ethics happens in the family – where character first finds its roots. Exposure to culture and learning during the school years further shapes the child’s ethical outlook.
Jackie Gerstein in her post Teaching Ethics in the Age of Technology writes that teaching ethics in STEM fields is overdue. She explains,
Ethical decision-making should be included as a 21st century skill. . . we are living in the most complex era of human history.”
Gerstein goes on to point out that students have access to copious, often conflicting information. Technologies are emerging, being developed, advancing, and being disseminated at rates that the human mind often cannot comprehend.
Ethics studies can help students develop critical thinking skills; explore and evaluate real problems; make wise choices concerning technologies; and develop knowledge, skills, and judgement that they can use in their personal lives as well as in the workforce.
Our ability to create, invent, and innovate has begun to outstrip our ability to manage those technologies appropriately. And in this rapidly changing century, a STEM workforce unprepared to make ethical decisions could have devastating effects.
Perhaps that’s why Steele, Brew, and Beatty in The Tower Builders: A Consideration of STEM, STSE and Ethics in Science Education make this jolting statement:
STEM teaching and learning . . . could inadvertently fall far short of its promise to provide ethically grounded answers to pressing global concerns without an ethical framework to guide it.”
The National Science Foundation would also like to see the ethics issue become front and center in STEM fields. This organization is currently funding research to explore “What constitutes ethical STEM research and practice?” This funding focuses on practices that help to establish and maintain ethical cultures and how these practices can be transferred. As welcome as this focus is, the funding targets higher education and, as it stands now, will probably have little impact on K-12 STEM work.
That highlights the need for K-12 teachers to work with students, particularly in STEM areas, to help them develop a structure for ethical decision-making. So, are our resilient STEM teachers up for yet another crucial task? Before our next generation of decision-makers hit the workforce, can STEM teachers help them with a process for making ethical decisions?
How do we teach ethics in STEM?
Do you have ethics built into your STEM curriculum? What does that look like? For a start I’m envisioning kids in their teams debating solutions to problems, looking at possible consequences of those solutions, and examining the trade-offs they’d have to make.
Some types of real-world problems lend themselves readily to ethical deliberations. Proposed environmental solutions for cleaner air, for example, resulted in push-back from some industries that faced investing more money in equipment, and even from some citizens who feared a rise in price for the products these industries produce. So how do you lead your students through a productive discussion of these issues?
In my search for answers to that question I located a free Ethics Primer from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (downloadable as a PDF). This publication strongly recommends that the study of ethics begin through exploring a case study or a scenario.
A STEM lesson provides a perfect kickoff for an ethics discussion, since a scenario generally accompanies the real-world problem kids are trying to solve. From there, ethics principles and practices can be built naturally into the lesson.
As an example, in most lessons there will be conflicting values that provide opportunities to build skills in applying ethics. In a unit on conserving energy students might work on constructing efficient wind turbines for generating inexpensive electricity – a real need. In the real world, while attempting to install the turbines they would be likely to run across opposition from environmental groups who worry about threats to wildlife and from homeowners who don’t want the turbines devaluing their property or being a blight on the landscape.
How might students approach this conflict? They might use questions such as these:
- What background information do we know about this issue?
- Who or what is affected by this issue?
- What benefits might result from our solution?
- What harm could result from our solution?
- Which results will create the greatest good?
In reaching their decision, students will often find it useful to apply these ethical principles mentioned in the Primer.
- Respect individuals and their right to make independent choices.
- Be of benefit: in other words, do good and not harm.
- Be just: treat others equitably and distribute benefits/burdens fairly.
- Care: employ compassion and solutions that will create the greatest good.
What can STEM educators do?
What can you do to help your students become ethical citizens? Is there a way to integrate ethics into your STEM classes? The Primer introduces basic concepts of ethics and offers lesson strategies and rubrics, followed by teacher backgrounders, handouts, and a variety of suggested formats.
I’m hoping that in many schools and classrooms, the concept of public and professional ethics is already being explicitly taught within the STEM context. (Notice that ethics and character education are not synonymous.) If I’m on target, would you comment below and let readers know how that’s happening?