Ethics in STEM Education

by | Mar 1, 2018 | STEM Education Info

When elementary school students debate the pros and cons of zoos in America they’re learning aboutEthics in STEM education shouldn't be left to just adults. Students should be involved in the conversation. ethics in STEM education and the ethical dilemmas associated with scientific endeavors. They’re learning to think critically and use evidence in support of their arguments. The same is true when kids in middle school debate the use of animals in medical research or when high school students consider the future of genetic engineering. Ethical dilemmas in science offer students an exciting entry point into their studies. That’s because these aren’t just facts and stories in textbooks. They’re issues our world today is facing today and ones that our students are preparing to solve tomorrow.

Students Love Debating

Take for example the recent deaths of four squirrel monkeys used as subjects in a nicotine addiction study, which led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to permanently shut down the investigation, citing a failure to maintain appropriate animal welfare standards. Even if no monkeys had died, was this primate research necessary in the first place? Of course, it depends on who you ask, and there’s no better group to ask than your students. Kids love to argue about right from wrong and tell you why they value the things they care about. That’s not fair! said every kid who has been to school.

John Dewey, the great American education reformer, argued that while “the wanton and needless infliction of suffering upon any sentient creature, is unquestionably wrong,” medical research on animals “even when it involves some pain or entails, as is more common, death without pain,” is not only ethical, but it is absolutely necessary.

However, Dewey went on to say that, “Scientific men are under definite obligation to experiment upon animals so far as that is the alternative to random and possibly harmful experimentation upon human beings, and so far as such experimentation is a means of saving human life and of increasing human vigor and efficiency.”

That was written in 1926 for the Atlantic magazine. Ninety years later in 2014, Peter Singer, the world renowned philosopher credited with helping to launch the animal rights movement and the development of bioethics, wrote an essay for the NY Daily News about a 26-year-old Chimpanzee named Tommy. Here’s what Singer thought about a court case that would decide whether or not Tommy should be given the status of legal personhood, a move that would allow him to be removed from his medical research cage and brought to an animal sanctuary in Florida:

Tommy is 26 years old. He is being held in solitary confinement in a wire cage. He has never been convicted of a crime, or even accused of one…In civil law, to be a person is to count as an entity in one’s own right. A corporation can be a legal person, and so, too can a river…The judges have the power to declare Tommy a legal person. That is what they should do, and not only because it is cruel to keep a chimpanzee in solitary confinement.”

“They have close and personal relationships with others in their group. They grieve for lost loved ones. They are self-aware beings, capable of thought. Their foresight and anticipation enable them to plan ahead,” Singer explains. “It is time for the courts to recognize that the way we treat chimpanzees in indefensible. They are persons and we should end their wrongful imprisonment.”

What About Your Students?

What would your students think about Tommy? What would they think about those spider monkeys that lost their lives in the name of a botched nicotine study? After all, don’t we already know that nicotine is highly addictive? At what point can we no longer justify medical research on certain animals? Is there a line that should not be crossed? If so, where might it be?

Discussions about ethics in STEM education and science should not be left alone to the grownups in the room. These are powerful and emotionally charged topics that will compel kids to care even more about the science they’re studying. The applications to real life can’t be understated. For example, StratoStar’s high-altitude scientific balloons are used to conduct experimental research in the troposphere and stratosphere. When students are curious about the effects of high altitude, extreme temperature, and low atmospheric pressure on living organisms, they face an ethical dilemma that also serves as a critically important teachable moment.

Students and Dissection

Is it okay for students to use live species when conducting their experimental atmospheric research? If so, what species are appropriate? How was the decision made? I’ll answer those questions in my next post on how ethics in STEM education are integrated into StratoStar STEM programs, which combine project-based learning, team problem solving, the engineering and design process, and scientific exploration in the troposphere and stratosphere.

Did you dissect something when you were in school? Most of us can recall being asked to dissect a frog or worm when we were students. Some may have even worked on turtles, pigs, cats, or mice. Dissecting real species was thought to be a necessary part of a student’s formal education. What about now?

The American Humane Society argues “Dissection not only teaches children the anatomy of only a single species, but it also teaches them that it is all right to disregard another’s life for the sake of learning.” According to the animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the problem is serious:

“Each year in the U.S., an estimated 20 million animals are abused for cruel, archaic teaching exercises, despite the existence of superior non-animal teaching tools. Roughly half of them are killed and used for classroom dissection; others are tormented while they’re still alive in classroom biology and psychology experiments and cut apart in medical training drills.”

What does this mean for StratoStar’s high-altitude scientific balloons? Is it okay for students to use live species when conducting experimental atmospheric research? If so, what species are appropriate? How is the decision made? These days, sophisticated computer technology can be used to accomplish much of what previously required the sacrifice of living species. Having said that, there are still times when testing on living species can yield invaluable scientific results, in addition to the experience being invaluable for the learner, in and of itself.

Interested in launching a high-altitude weather balloon? The experts at StartoStar would love to help you and your students design an experiment and launch it to the edge of space. Let’s talk!