Teaching the Principles of Science Ethics with HHMI BioInteractive
I recently started teaching a science ethics course for biology majors entering their senior year at my university. This is a new program, which presented a great opportunity for me to develop a curriculum for a course that will convey scientists’ ethical standards to my students. These standards involve both social and professional responsibilities. I also wanted to incorporate authentic scientific work with the dual purpose of reinforcing conceptual understanding of the process of science, including the selection of appropriate research models, and introducing the often-overlooked role of scientists in society.
I derived two inquiry-based activities from HHMI BioInteractive videos that explore the ethical standards associated with the social responsibility of scientists, communication with the public, and animal research. I incorporated these activities in my course to reinforce concepts such as the process of science and research design, as well as to connect these previously learned concepts to new content, which includes ethical standards.
These activities provided students with a glimpse of the interdisciplinary nature of science and engaged them by allowing them a view of real-world science through the lens of an actual scientist at work. They also explore the communication, collaboration, and relationship between science and society as the scientists in the selected films grapple with how to convey the importance of their work for the benefit of society and the implications that scientific work can have on public policy implementation. Therefore, students practice behaviors that they will eventually face as scientists.
I use this activity at the beginning of the semester when we discuss the ethics underpinning good study design, collaboration, and communication with the public. My goal is to show students that science is not just conducted in isolation in a lab. Instead, science is a practice that requires the ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines, as well as an understanding of the intersection between science and society. I found BioInteractive’s Scientists at Work videos to be an excellent resource to provide an opportunity for students to view the process of science through a different lens in order to identify the ethical issues being introduced in the course.
I used this assignment as a follow-up to an environmental ethics/social justice lecture that students attended as part of the class. The first part of the assignment asks students to choose one of four Scientists at Work videos (see selections below). Students view one of the videos at home and respond to questions posted online before the next class period. These questions are then used to jump-start an in-class discussion session about the influence of science on public policy and the related ethical principles.
I use the following videos because they contain a variety of public policy-related research, such as on climate change, which allows students to examine policy that is currently being debated on the global stage. In addition, these videos allow students to choose from a variety of disciplines to help provide models of how science works in the real world and thus dispel the myth of the lone scientist toiling away in a lab.
- Think Like a Scientist: Gorongosa (An example of how conservation biologists worked with the local community to help shape policy that benefits both humans and wildlife.)
- Think Like a Scientist: Natural Selection in an Outbreak (An example of how genomics research helped to address public policy stemming from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.)
- The Effects of Fungicides on Bumble Bee Colonies (An example of how conservation biologists studying bumble bees could help drive changes to make farming practices more sustainable.)
- Liz Hadly Tracks the Impact of Climate Change in Yellowstone (An example of how the study of climate change in Yellowstone National Park could be used to drive policies to help counteract ecological changes.)
Here is a list of the questions that students address:
- For your chosen video, describe how policy and/or the public’s perception of this topic are influenced by the process of science.
- Describe how the research provided scientific knowledge that was able to restore and create a new societal and political narrative to help society.
- Overall, do you think that meaningful political decisions should or could be made without scientific knowledge being applied to the situation? Use a specific example from the video to support your answer.
- Investigate the research project and political event from your video. Identify a policy or law that was created from the scientist’s work. Prepare a 1-page write-up to share with the class during the discussion session. You should include a brief summary of the project, the policy/law stemming from the project, and a reference list.
After completing this activity, students shared that they found the videos engaging because they were able to see actual scientists at work. In addition, they had never thought about ethics from this standpoint. They were unaware of the ethical underpinnings behind the role scientists play in sharing their research with the public and in creating public policy.
The aim of this activity was, again, to reinforce the ethical approach to the process of science, as well as to introduce the ethical standards applied when animals are used in research. This activity used the BioInteractive film Genes as Medicine. I use the film as an introductory activity for students to see an authentic example of the process of science and how animal models are chosen for scientific research to develop a gene therapy for a congenital form of blindness. Using the corresponding film activity, I emphasize the questions that relate to animal research, Question 8 in particular. The film provides an excellent attention-grabber for the students and an excellent starting point for a sometimes uncomfortable discussion about why animals are used in scientific research.
The video is followed up by a brief minilecture on animal care during research and how scientists choose the appropriate animal research model before being allowed to conduct human clinical trials. After the minilecture, students complete an in-class activity, during which they learn how to pick the best animal model for a research problem. The lesson concludes with a group assignment in which the students are given a research problem for which they must create a research design that includes the appropriate model organism. Each group gives a short presentation on their assignment the following week, during which the group must be prepared to defend their research design.
This activity was well received by students because they were able to see the ethics behind good experimental design, as well as the ethical treatment of animals in the video.
Overall, I found these activities really allowed students to see that ethics is much more than just not “fudging data.” Students were able to take the skills learned through both of these activities and apply them to future assignments and their culminating course projects. I am looking forward to using them again this fall with a new group of students. I also look forward to feedback and discussion with colleagues!
I’d love to discuss this and other biology education resources on our Facebook group!
Melissa Haswell is an associate professor in the science department at Davenport University in Michigan. She has been teaching anatomy and physiology, as well as pathophysiology for prenursing students, for the last 14 years. Melissa also conducts science education research that focuses on social justice aspects of science education, and the implementation of various learning modalities such as case-based learning, dialogue education as applied to biology education, and genetic literacy of nursing students. Her favorite hobbies include hiking with her Dalmatian, Chloe, as well as backpacking and traveling with her husband, Jim.
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