This activity introduces students to ethics and bioethics. Bioethics concerns some of the more difficult dilemmas and decisions facing scientists as science advances, particilarly in the field of Cellular Engineering which strives, in part, to make new forms of life capable of solving problems for humankind. Students are given a framework to analyze and discuss bioethical questions that may arise from Cellular Engineering research.
This activity was adapted from the NIH Curriculum Supplement: Exploring Bioethics. To download the entire curriculum, visit NIH.gov.
Ethics concerns what we “should” do, not what we legally have to do or what we’d prefer to do, although often those three things overlap.
There are four principles of ethics: respecting autonomy, harms and benefits, fairness, authenticity.
Ethical questions can have the four principles at odds with one another, such that a solution that satisfies one principle might violate another.
Often ethical questions don’t have a “right” answer, or an “easy” answer.
Bioethics is a category of ethics concerned with ethical issues that arrise from life science research.
Cellular Engineering research has many bioethical issues as this field could potentially create new organisms that could have lasting effects on humans and the environment.
- Tough questions (ethical question prompts)
- Ethics Sorting Cards
- Cellular Engineering specific questions (bioethics prompts)
- NIH Curriculum Supplement: Exploring Bioethics, Module 1
Groups of 3-4 students
For some activities, students will work in pairs
5 min – Intro
15 min – Tough questions
15 min – Background on ethics
40 min – Card sorting
45 min – Bioethics discussion
Prerequisites for students
Students should have some experience in cellular engineering to be able to answer the cellular engineering bioethical questions.
Learning goals/objectives for students
- Introduce students to the field of ethics
- Develop understanding of ethics as a framework to guide research decisions
- Build ethical considerations into conversations about science
Content background for instructor
Ethics concerns what a person should do, or the best course of action, and provides an explanation of those choices. It uses as a guideline an idea of how to better treat others and what types of communities and societies we would like to live in. Bioethics is a subfield of ethics, and concerns how governments, organizations, and communities should best apply advancements of science for the good of humankind.
More background content can be found at: https://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/webversions/bioethics/guide/foreword.html
Create several sets of index cards for the sorting activity (at least one per group of 3 students, ideally one per pair). Print out the “tough questions” and “bioethical questions” prompts (one fore each group of 3 – 4 students).
It is a good idea to start the bioethics activities by adding a few norms. Discussions involving ethics can get heated as many hold strong ethical beliefs. Here are a few suggestions:
- Challenge ideas, not people
- Offer your idea even if it’s unpopular (It helps the community learn more)
- Listen to all ideas respectfully, even unpopular ideas
- Be aware of body language and non-verbal cues (They can be just as disrespectful as words)
Tough Questions: (15 mins)
Start with the tough questions without much framework. Most people have an idea of ethics, without it being defined. Allow groups to discuss one of the following questions and have each share out:
- My boss gave me credit for a project on which a colleague did most of the work. Should I accept the praise?
- If a charity sends me free address labels and I don’t make a contribution, is it OK to use them?
- Is it considered stealing to take pens from a bank? What about extra napkins from a fast-food restaurant?
Ask one student (chosen at random) to report out a few points discussed at their group. Take notes on what the students share. After each topic is discussed, ask for other questions or comments from the whole group.
Background on Ethics (15 mins):
Start by giving the students a definition of ethics:
Ethics seeks to determine what a person should do, or the best course of action, and provides reasons why.
It also helps people decide how to behave and treat one another, and what kinds of communities would be good to live in.
Go over the four fundamental principles of ethics. Use your notes from the last activity and try to use student answers from the “tough questions and classify them in the principles below:
- Respecting autonomy – Never treating someone as a mere means to your own goals or ends. Two ways to show respect are enabling people to make their own choices and not undermining or disregarding those choices. For example, if one person’s organs could help five people live, it would be an ethical violation of respect for persons to kill that one person and distribute the organs to save the five who need them. Also enabling them to make their own choices, not interfering in their choices or ability to carry out those choices. Not just listening, but understanding, and not judging or belittling their points of view.
- Example: Taking credit for your colleagues work might be considered not respecting their autonomy if we aren’t asking that colleague if it’s ok to accept the praise. Maybe they would like praise for their work, but if you ignore that, you are not respecting their autonomy.
- Harms or benefits – Benefits are positive consequences, and harms are negative consequences. It is important to consider how one can minimize harms while maximizing benefits. This applies to both you, others, the community, the environment, etc.
- Example: We talked about the degree to which we take pens or napkins. Partly we are considering whether we are harming the bank or the restaurant for our own benefit. What degree is that harm? What is the benefit to us?
- Fairness – Ensuring that benefits, risks (harms), resources, and costs are distributed equitably. Equal = everyone gets the same thing, Equity = distributed based on each persons situation, history, access, etc.
- Example: Accepting praise while not doing much work is not necessarily fair. We get more benefits while our colleague had the harms of the hours doing work. But maybe our colleague doesn’t care about praise, but wanted the experience or their name on the paper. So in that case, fairness is not about making sure everyone gets the same thing, but more that everyone gets what they need for their situation. Similarly, maybe its fair for me to get more napkins at the restaurant because I ate there, but not for someone else who just walked in and took napkins without paying for anything. I’m increasing benefit for the restaurant, while that other person is only benefiting themselves.
- Authenticity – Achieving a goal in a manner consistent with what is valued about the performance and seen as essential (or true) to its nature. Using a ladder to dunk a basketball is not authentic. I am doing the action necessary to score points in the game, but not in the way everyone agrees upon. (Could be breaking the rules or not).
- Example: I’m not authentically representing my relationship to the charity by using their address labels.
Ethical Question Sorting Activity (40 mins):
Next activity provides an opportunity to examine a range of questions and determine which are questions of ethics.
- Work in pairs
- Each pair will be given cards containing questions
- Sort those into categories
Round 1: Ethical v Scientific Questions
After students sort – ask for volunteers for the types of questions they found. How could they identify the ethical questions in the collection?
Discussion Prompts for whole group:
- Scientists seek to understand phenomena in the world—they want to describe what something is/how the world works. They answer scientific questions with observations and experimentation.
- Ethicists seek to understand what people should or ought to do. They answer ethical questions with reasons, using both the facts at hand and relevant ethical considerations, such as respect for persons and fairness.
- The difference between “is” and “ought” is a good way to summarize a main difference between scientists (who seek to describe and understand the natural world) and ethicists (who seek to determine what one ought to do).
Round 2: Ethical v Legal Questions
Hand students round 2 cards to sort at their tables. Afterwards, collect their impressions of the different types of questions posed.
Discussion prompts for whole group:
- Ethical analyses should take the legal context and local laws into consideration, but something can be illegal yet ethical.
- Something can also be legal and unethical, such as the Jim Crow laws that prohibited African Americans from using public water fountains used by whites. Or child labor, etc. It is not illegal to lie about breaking a cereal bowl at your house, but it may be unethical.
- With respect to performance enhancers in sports, some interventions could be considered unethical even if they are not yet illegal and vice versa.
- The law typically sets the minimum standards to which people must adhere; ethical standards sometimes focus on ideals or what would be the best thing to do, and not just the minimum or what would be merely acceptable to do.
Round 3: Ethical v Personal Preferences, Customs and Habits
Hand students round 3 cards to sort at their tables. Afterwards, collect their impressions of the different types of questions posed.
Discussion prompts for whole group
- Ethical analyses should take customs into consideration, but something can be ethical and yet not in accord with personal preference, custom, or habit.
- Something can be in accord with personal preference, custom, or habit but still be unethical. For example, not long ago in the United States, it was customary to discourage women from certain careers, but this was not ethical.
Round 4: All 4 types
Hand students round 3 cards to sort at their tables. Afterwards, collect their impressions of the different types of questions posed.
What are the main characteristics of an ethical question? What do they have in common?
- Ethical questions are often about what we should or ought to do. (While the word should frequently appears in ethical questions, it is not always there.)
- Ethical questions often arise when people aren’t sure what the right thing to do in a certain situation is or when there is a choice or a controversy about what is best.
Bioethics Activity (30 mins):
Pop culture has long presented the image of the “Mad Scientist” – someone who tries crazy experiments just to see what happens (or deliberately to do evil), to bring back a lost love, etc. One of the first, most famous examples is from the book Frankenstein, published 200 years ago (1818).
“When I found so astonishing a power within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it…I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me any doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man.”
Cellular engineering is a new discipline, pushing the boundaries so that we can manipulate cell structures to either optimize or create new functionalities to help solve problems in health, the environment, etc – often by reprogramming the cells so that they function differently. So, this question – what experiments are ok to pursue and how do we decide in a systematic way is an important one to consider.
Ask students to discussion (in their groups) one of the following bioethical questions:
- Who decides if it’s ok to engineer an organism? How do they decide if it’s ok?
- What checks and balances should be in place on cellular engineering research?
- What responsibility do we have to the organisms we create? Who does the organism belong to?
- Is it ok to use an engineered cell outside of the laboratory? What restrictions or safety precautions are necessary?
In your table group:
- Read the question aloud in your group
- Discuss the bioethical question you are given
- Can you come to a group consensus decision/answer about the question?
- Be ready to share your reasons for your decision/answer
Ask one student (chosen at random) to report out a few points discussed at their group. Take notes on what the students share. After each topic is discussed, ask for other questions or comments from the whole group. See if you can take the students reasoning and fit it into one of the four pricinples of ethics described earlier.
Checking for student understanding
Every voice in an ethical discussion has value, even if its an unpopular opinion or contrary to your own views as a teacher. Try to act as neutral as possible when taking in all comments about ethical opinions. Use active listening to repeat what you have hear and ask for comments or counter arguments from the group instead of engaging in debate from the class. This gives you, as the instructor, the ability to steer the class back on track if needed, and ensure that all students feel their voices are supported.
Now that your students have had a chance to apply an ethical framework to Cellular Engineering, ask them to write their own question on a stick note. This question can be ethical, or clarification, or a concern or comment about the bioethics of Cellular Engineering.
Is it ethical to expose physarum to chemicals that might harm or kill it?
How do we ensure cellular engineering research benefits everyone equally?
Do organisms have autonomy if they don’t have a brain?
HS-ETS1-3 Engineering Design
(When evaluating bioethical questions, student groups must priortize criteria and make trade offs that will account for and minimize possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.)
HS-LS2-7 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
(In the discussions around the bioethical questions, students may discuss how a cellular engineering solution could impact the environment or biodiversity. In some cases, students are prompted to think about the impact to native speicies if a cellular engineered organism is released. This challenges students to refine potential cellular engineering solutions to reduce that potential impact to the environment.)
HS-ESS3-4 Earth and Human Activity
(In the discussions around the bioethical questions, students may discuss how a cellular engineering solution could impact natural systems. In some cases, students are prompted to think about the impact to native speicies if a cellular engineered organism is released. This challenges students to refine potential cellular engineering solutions to reduce that potential impact to the environment.)
Disciplinary Core Ideas
ETS1.B Developing Possible Solutions
ETS2.A Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology
(The connection between sciencen and engineering is highlighted when students are asked to discuss possible engineered solutions to reduce the impact of scientific discoveries in cellular engineering.)
ETS2.B Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World
(Students are asked to discuss potential impacts of new technologies and scientific discoveries on the environment and society.)
HS-LS2.C Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience
HS-ESS3.C Human Impacts on Earth Systems
Science and Engineering Practices
Practice 6. Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
Practice 7. Engaging in Argument from Evidence
Practice 8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
Cause and Effect
Scale, Proportion, Quantity
Structure and Function
Stability and Change