Friday, October 21, 2005

Do you want them to learn it in the schoolyard?

I just got back from talking with an outside evaluator about the federally funded training grant project at my university that tries to get more of our students to graduate school in science. The evaluator is here not at the behest of the funding agency, but rather at the request of the science professor here who oversees the program. Because, you know, he wants to know how good a job we're doing at what we think we're doing, so we can make improvements if needed, and he figured an outside guy who has evaluated other such programs could give us some good insight here.

Let me pause to note that the folks who are this serious about making their efforts successful are a big part of why I love working here.

Anyway, I was on the agenda because I teach the ethics course the federal funding agency requires of students supported by training grants like this one. (That is to say, they require some course on research ethics; I developed the particular course they're taking.) We had an interesting discussion, the evaluator and I, about the genesis of the course, the enrollment, the syllabus, and such. And, in the course of this discussion, we arrived at one of the nagging worries I have about courses like this:

It is possible that learning ethics (even ethics-for-scientists) from a class in a philosophy department will have less of an impact on science students than learning ethics from their science professors would have.

Part of this, I'm afraid, is the curse of the required class. Kids hate required classes, even if what they're required to take has potential value for their lives down the road. Anyone who has taught a class with prerequisites has probably had experience with students who took a class they were required to take and promptly forgot almost all of it ... because check the transcript, you did that class. That shouldn't mean you need to waste valuable brain real estate remembering anything you learned.

And seriously, a class from a philosopher? What the heck does that have to do with learning to be a good scientist? (Set aside the fact that a science professor approached me to develop this course, and that one of the science departments here decided, without consulting me about it, to make this class a requirement for their majors, with at least one other science department thinking about following suit.)

In my case, I actually have some ammunition by way of my misspent scientific youth. Y'all are looking at going to grad school in a science? Been there, done that, wrote the dissertation, got a Ph.D. But, there are other schools where the science majors take their ethics from philosophy departments and the philosophers can't necessarily throw down so effectively.

There's still the worry that, if you put all the discussions of ethics in a one semester course over in some other department, you convey the distinct impression that: (1) thinking about these issues for a semester is sufficient, and/or (2) no one in your home department can teach you what you need to know about ethics, and/or (3) grown-up scientists don't actually need to pay attention to ethics. Obviously, I think all of these are misapprehensions. Indeed, the science professors I've talked to here are really good at highlighting responsible conduct of research (RCR) issues in all kinds of contexts. These professors understand that RCR is still relevant in their work, and they even seem to talk to each other about the best ways to conduct their research rather than letting things blow up and calling in the ethicists in Haz-Mat suits.

It has also been pointed out to me that a bunch of science professors would actually enjoy coming to the ethics class but they don't for fear that it would stifle the class discussions. Given how discussions in this class tend to be (brutally honest, with lots of critical examination of how things are done in real labs -- some good, and some bad), it's probably true that the presence of an authority figure from a science department would change the dynamic. So I guess this is a real advantage of offering the course in the philosophy department: students from different scientific disciplines get to discuss their experiences among different branches of the tribe of science on neutral turf.

Still, I can't help but thinking it would be better if there was some kind of forum for discussions of ethics back in the students' home departments -- a lunch group, a once a month seminar or group-meeting type thing, something. This would help the students understand that their professors really care about this stuff, too. And, it would give the faculty a regular channel for talking together about RCR issues -- because people seem to do better with ethical decisions when they can chew them over with a group.

I imagine I'll keep thinking of ways to optimize this. If my history here is any guide, the science professors I'll be looking to for help implementing my harebrained schemes will be receptive.

They provide a nice contrast to the chair of another department here, who showed up, frantic, at our department the other day. Their department failed to get accreditation because the course (in our department) they had been using as an ethics course didn't satisfy the acrediting agency. So, they wanted us (of course) to whip out a specialized ethics course that would satisfy the acrediting agency. Immediately. In trying to impress upon our department chair just how badly they needed us to solve this problem for them, the chair of the other department exclaimed, "We don't know anything about ethics!"

Sugar-dumpling, that's what scares me ...

It does seem to reinforce the notion that ethics instruction is valuable wherever you can find it. But is it worth $13K? You be the judge!

My blog is worth $13,548.96.
How much is your blog worth?

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At 6:09 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

So now we get to guess which dept it was that said they knew nothing about ethics!

Business or medicine seem to be safe bets to me....


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