Secondary STEM Education and Ethical Controversies

To the extent that education at the secondary level in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is inherently also teaching morality, the question should be asked how that connection could be made more explicit in an individual student’s mind.

One approach to exposing students to the ethical dimensions of these subjects might be to examine historically significant controversies in STEM.  There is some evidence to support that role-playing on the sides of the debates can help each student internalize the interplay of the sides and make the connection between pure STEM and a moral dimension (Wareham, Siniotis & Elm, 2006).

Science

One classroom module might consider the nuclear weapons debate of the late 20th century.  Although Einstein and other physicists involved in the Manhattan Project were pursuing a mix of national interests (war time) and pure science during the development of the hydrogen bomb, many became outspoken advocates for peace and the strict regulation or abandonment of nuclear armaments.  One takeaway of this module might be the fallacy that there is such a thing as pure science, untethered to moral dimension.  In other words I take issue with the author’s main thesis in Florman, 1996.

Technology

Another module might discuss the control of conception, terminal disease, and beginning- or end-of-life issues.  I would ask students to consider if life and death issues should be argued on utilitarian grounds, or if religious perspective has some jurisdiction over the debate.  This topic could most definitely take a whole college-level course, and secondary students probably come into contact with these arguments each and every day, and probably in very personal ways.  My strategy would be to start from the dignity of all human life and the moral problems with any one person determining when that life should end, once started.

Engineering

A popular topic for this module might be a discussion of the environmental impacts of “progress”.  Mankind, via Adam and Eve in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is commanded to be steward or curator of natural resources for future generations.  This has not always been our top priority, especially as greed and exploitation of the environment have become more widespread.  My tactic here would be to discuss how sustainability in economic pursuit might not be a “more excellent way”.

Mathematics

At various times statistics and other mathematical communication (including charts, curves and tables) are misused in the public square by one side or another to tell what they believe to be their more compelling side of the story (Wheeler 1976).  Any practitioner of these arts owes their audience a fair description of the assumptions and exclusions inherent in their analysis.  In this module we might review egregious samples and hope not only to enlighten those who might mislead, but also those who might be misled.

It could be argued that moral/ethical education is not the place of a secondary education teacher.  However, that would be ignoring that reality that ethical education is already being taught, indirectly or directly as commentary around a topic occurs during otherwise routine instruction.  It is the feeling of this author that a headlong treatment of specific case studies are well within the purview of the secondary educator and should not be relegated to post-secondary coursework.

References

Florman S.C. (1996). The existential pleasures of engineering. (2nd ed). New York, NY: St. Martins.

Wareham D.G., Elefsiniotis P, & Elms D.G (2006). Introducing Ethics Using Structured Controversies. European Journal of Engineering Education, 31( 6 ), 651-660. link

Wheeler, M. (1976). Lies, damn lies, and statistics:  the manipulation of public opinion in America.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co Inc.

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Comments

  • Joy Johnsen  On October 18, 2010 at 2:35 am

    John,

    I liked your suggestions of ethical lessons-plans in science and technology-classes, but I would hope to see a distinction made between science and technology. This would promote better public relations among students who are future voters. Science is the pursuit of knowledge (examples: Biology, Physics). Technology is the application of that knowledge to meet human needs and wants (examples: Medicine, Engineering).

    Human societies have experienced multiple unforseen outcomes and ethical-dilemmas because of how we develop technologies. New technologies are not brought to us by scientists, but instead they are launched by businesspeople and governments. Usually the potential adverse impacts or ethical-implications of these new technologies are not studied much in advance. Mishaps, disasters, and unresolved ethical quandaries are therefore not uncommon occurrences.

    We need to look to our general citizenry to help us make rules about how to better implement our technology-development. Our students need more basic-science plus the type of classroom-debates that you are suggesting, in order to handle their future role as decision-makers in our society.

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