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.

TOP 10 SCIENCE AND ETHICS RESOURCES

1. Cellular level

This guide from the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will help 16-plus students to navigate the legal and ethical issues surrounding stem-cell research.

bit.lyStemIssue

2. Animal argument

Start a debate on the use of animals in scientific research and testing with the help of these worksheets.

bit.lyTestCase

3. Ethical compendium

You'll never be short of ethical questions with this resource in your arsenal: it provides 168 of them to put to students.

bit.lyEthicalQuestions

4. Donation dilemma

Teach your class the key skills required for philosophical and ethical engagement by asking them to consider the moral implications of organ donation.

bit.lyDonationDilemma

5. Tech tests

These films introduce ethical considerations associated with technological developments and the responsibilities of scientists.

bit.lyTechMorals

6. In question

A worksheet to help students understand the difference between moral and scientific questions.

bit.lyIssueInsight

7. Moral maze

A lesson looking at different ethical questions within science, from the obesity epidemic to space exploration.

bit.lyScienceMorals

8. Cloning caution

Use this PowerPoint to discuss the ethics of cloning.

bit.lyCloningCaution

9. Medic alert

These differentiated worksheets allow students to engage with medical ethics in a variety of areas, including euthanasia and fertility treatment.

bit.lyMedicalEthics

10. Earth works

In this short film, watch academic Clive Hamilton of Australia's Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics explore the implications of geoengineering - the large-scale manipulation of the Earth's climate system.

bit.lyEarthExploration.

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