How I Teach - There's a science to ethics

31st January 2014 at 00:00
Use the lives of scientists to explore moral issues in class

Ethical and moral issues are usually perceived as being best tackled in humanities subjects, yet I am a firm believer that science is just as capable of inspiring and facilitating debates in these areas.

History relates countless stories of scientists at the forefront of technological advances having to balance the demand for progress with the ethical and moral issues of meeting those demands. Particularly unfortunate are those scientists whose inventions were intended to benefit society but were transformed into weapons of war, torture or destruction. Should they then feel retrospectively guilty?

The most effective way I have found to encourage ethical and moral debates in science classes is to highlight the stories of Fritz Haber and Alfred Nobel.

The former developed the Haber process, which allows ammonia to be mass-produced using nothing but methane gas and renewable resources. His discovery has been central to our ability to sustain a rapidly expanding population, as ammonia fertiliser has enabled mass, reliable food production on a scale not previously possible. The Haber process is still in use today, helping us to create fertilisers to cope with growing populations.

And yet, although Haber's discovery has indirectly fed billions, some believe that he has also had a hand in the deaths of up to 150 million people. Ammonia is the basic element in munitions, so in discovering how to synthesise it, Haber enabled the mass production of weapons of war.

Nobel, meanwhile, was the inventor of dynamite, the first explosive that was insensitive to shock and vibrations. This meant it could be transported and put to use in distant places, clearing the way for mines and for building railroad tracks and many other infrastructure projects. Such developments have proved essential to the progress of humanity. Inevitably, however, dynamite also found its way into warfare, paving the way for modern explosives such as bombs, landmines and more.

I set the students a challenge: should Nobel and Haber feel guilty? Are they responsible for what other people did with their creations? Should they have foreseen their misuse? Do the positive impacts of a scientific breakthrough outweigh the negative effects?

This always prompts a lively debate, one that can be extended to other dilemmas, from the misuse of computers for bullying to the working conditions of those who build the laptops and tablet computers we use every day.

The great thing is that moral and ethical debates go hand in hand with the teaching of hard science. By studying the lives of the two scientists and their inventions, students learn not only the concepts of rates, energetics and equilibrium but also how these concepts have developed and played a major part in creating the world we live in today.

Sarah Al-Benna is a science teacher at the Heidelberg International School in Germany.


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