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Developing Students’ Ethical Thinking in STEM Classes

Teachers can use social and emotional learning frameworks to scaffold student discussions of ethical issues around advances in technology.

October 7, 2021
High school students work in a group in science class
REUTERS / Alamy

Immersed in the certainty of our subjects and beholden to a battery of standardized assessments, STEM teachers often react by shunning anything that can’t be proved with hard facts. Instead of hiding behind our content and avoiding the thorny technological-ethical issues that arise from that very content, it’s important that we embrace the opportunity to help our students confront those issues head-on. We want our future leaders and innovators to reason justly and choose carefully for all our sakes.

Scaffolding Ethics With SEL

Many people confuse teaching ethics with teaching morality. The latter would involve imposing a particular value system on students—what is right and what is wrong—as privileged over others. The former helps students to clarify and articulate their own personal values in a nonjudgmental way, and to make decisions based on those values in a thoughtful and reasoned manner in the context of situations that allow for a plurality of perspectives and actions.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) provides the ideal context for students to practice ethical thinking and decision-making, and it complements the content of STEM classes well. While there are various SEL frameworks, they all have the development of autonomy and agency, cognitive and emotional regulation, social skills and relationships, and public spirit in common. These competencies can be seamlessly addressed alongside rigorous content knowledge by addressing ethics explicitly.

Developing Student Autonomy and Agency

Helping students develop the understanding that they are unique and sovereign individuals with the ability to make choices that affect the trajectories of their lives is one of the cornerstones of SEL. The macro teaching structure of project-based learning (PBL) addresses this SEL competency directly, as it gives students the voice and choice to exercise their autonomy and agency within their collaborative teams.

Framing a PBL unit’s driving question with an ethical component (instead of “How can we build an application that exhibits artificial intelligence?” ask “How can we build an application that exhibits artificial intelligence in a way that’s beneficial to humans?”) gives students the additional impetus to explicitly discuss the ethical implications of their work and to learn how to articulate their feelings about a particular topic and, in so doing, develop a sense of what defines their sense of morality.

Practicing Cognitive and Emotional Regulation

Learning how to monitor and regulate their learning and emotional responses prepares students to be more successful learners, colleagues, and friends. Exercising those skills in the context of a discussion that allows multiple perspectives enables students to learn how to frame their arguments coherently, based on their values, and to respond appropriately when those beliefs are challenged.

PBL units that address contemporary technologies with ambiguous moral implications are especially good for spirited ethical discussions, but debates about the ethics of technology can be held in any class, PBL or not. Topics such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, and cybersecurity are both timely and full of ethical questions that students can explore in the context of monitoring and regulating their logical thinking and emotional responses, in addition to clarifying their personal values.

Incorporating discussions of current events into regular classroom routines can be accomplished naturally in a way that is harmonious with a teacher’s temperament and teaching style. Plenty of engaging fodder for discussion can be found online—from videos to podcasts to news articles. Discussions can happen synchronously in person or asynchronously using digital tools that have become common in remote instruction.

Students can respond privately through individual journals or publicly in a class discussion. Discussions can be informal or more formal moderated debates. Regardless of what position students take, the very act of thinking through their values and expressing them respectfully in a classroom community’s marketplace of ideas complements their cognitive and emotional regulation.

Developing Social Skills and Relationships

Learning how to build meaningful and reciprocal relationships with others prepares students to be community contributors in a diverse world. Centered around the collaborative team structure, PBL provides students with the ideal laboratory in which to develop these interpersonal competencies. Through sharing and interacting with others’ opinions, students learn how to communicate, make decisions, resolve differences, and show appreciation and respect for others.

PBL units or current events discussions centered around the ethics of technology are ideal opportunities for students to learn how to regulate their thinking and emotions, and they also enhance social and relationship-building skills. Students clarify their ethical values while learning the SEL skills to work effectively in a pluralistic community and seek to prioritize relationships over always having their own way.

Encouraging Public Spirit

The value of community can’t be overstated. Helping students to learn how to care for and participate actively in their communities is a crucial part of developing future leaders with solid social and emotional skills and sound ethics. The structures of PBL engender that community spirit on a micro scale. PBL units or current events discussions can build on that if they have a distinctly and intentionally local connection and are framed with driving questions that have an ethical component.

By grappling with issues and proposing solutions to problems that directly affect people in their community—from their family to the school bus driver or the server at their favorite restaurant—students develop a sense of accountability and responsibility for community improvement through decisions and actions that are grounded in a place-based system of values.

Human civilization is at an existential crossroads. From pandemics to climate change to artificial intelligence, the challenges we face threaten the survival not just of individual nations but of our entire species. The solutions to these problems will undoubtedly have a technological component but are also unquestionably ethical and will certainly require cooperation on a global scale. To secure a positive future for the next generation, it’s important to ensure that they have the scientific know-how, interpersonal skills, and ethical grounding to make those difficult decisions in a values-centric way. STEM teachers are ideally positioned to help students develop these skills and attitudes.

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Filed Under

  • STEM
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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