Integrating Ethics into Graduate Training in the Environmental Sciences

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project is developing, incorporating, and assessing ethics modules on six topics designed for graduate courses in the environmental sciences: 1) responsible conduct of research; 2) data analysis; 3) sustainability; 4) cost/benefit analysis; 5) environmental risk-analysis; 6) decision-making under uncertainty. This fills a need for strengthened ethics education in the natural sciences. Ethics education in the natural and social sciences has been much less systematic than in medicine, business, and engineering. Further, ethics education in the natural sciences is often limited to instruction on the responsible conduct of research (RCR). This topic is typically handled in a single class meeting or an on-line training module, and is seldom accompanied by training in ethical sensitivity or ethical decision-making skills.

Graduate students are typically inculcated in research methods to view their research as objective and value-free. Research in the environmental sciences, however, often influences society and the environment in profound ways, and the conduct and interpretation of this research is rich in ethical assumptions and issues. Minimal training in the RCR is not adequate in educating graduate students about the full ethical dimensions of their research. We are investigating the hypothesis that expanded ethics education that encompasses ethical issues inherent in the content of scientific research as well as attention to the ethical conduct of scientific research will both improve students' appreciation of traditional RCR training and enrich students' understanding of the ethical context of their research in the environmental sciences.

Intellectual Merit: This project is seeking major advances in both the content and pedagogy of ethics education by developing and assessing the impact of curricular modules on topics in the environmental sciences. The research component of the project will test two hypotheses. The first is that increased emphasis in graduate education on ethical frameworks and ethical reasoning skills is correlated with a better understanding of and/or attitudes toward RCR. The second hypothesis is that extending ethics education beyond RCR is correlated with a better understanding of and/or attitudes toward ethics education in the sciences. Our modules will provide future scientists with an appreciation of the range of ethical issues they will face and the skills needed to address them.

Broader Impacts: While most scientists are committed to ensuring that their students appreciate the importance of scientific integrity, this topic is one many scientists feel under-prepared to teach. Tested, off-the-shelf modules that provide curricular support are thus a welcome addition to many instructors engaged in graduate education. This project is assessing how much ethics education is sufficient relative to identified learning objectives, enabling faculty to judge how best to incorporate the modules. The pedagogical techniques and assessment strategies that are being developed in the first year of this study will be implemented in graduate courses at Carnegie Mellon, Penn State Harrisburg, and at Slippery Rock University in subsequent years. Our results are being widely disseminated both by creating pedagogical modules and case study analyses for electronic publishing on the web pages of the Rock Ethics Institute, and through journal publications.

Effective start/end date9/15/058/31/09


  • National Science Foundation: $235,550.00


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