Bioethics in the Classroom

Q&A with Arthur Caplan, Ph.D. and Dominic Sisti, Ph.D.
Moheb Costandi, M.Sc.
December 6, 2010

Arthur Caplan - thumbnailArthur Caplan, Ph.D.
Emanuel and Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics
University of Pennsylvania


Dominic Sisti - thumbnailDominic Sisti, Ph.D.
Project Director, Scattergood Program for the Applied Ethics of Behavioural Health
Project Manager, The High School Bioethics Project
University of Pennsylvania

Arthur Caplan and Dominic Sisti were awarded a three-year grant from the Dana Foundation in 2007 to develop neuroethics curricular supplements and materials for high school teachers. Through curriculum development, online initiatives, and outreach programs, they ultimately hope to increase discussions about bioethics in high school classrooms.

Why is there a need for bioethics in secondary education?

AC: High school students grapple with tough questions, such as “Can we take a drug to do better on our tests?”, or “Should I eat foods made from genetically modified seeds?”, or “Is it right to experiment on animals?” but they don’t necessarily see this as bioethics, even though they talk about these issues in class sometimes. So although they don’t necessarily classify these topics as bioethics, teachers and students alike are interested in these issues. I think teaching bioethics is a good way to teach critical thinking and of promoting tolerant debate on controversial issues.

The project is aimed primarily at helping teachers to develop resources for teaching these issues, is that right?

AC: It has a definite teacher focus, but we do have a Website that students can access, so there is some outreach. The program is intended to make teachers comfortable with the idea of teaching the subject. That might mean teaching for an hour, a class, or a whole course, depending on the instructor, the school, and their resources. There are schools that have now started bioethics courses, and occasionally there are biology teachers who tell us that they’re not planning to teach the subject but would like to be better prepared in case it comes up in class.

In addition to creating and providing resources, such as bioethics curriculum supplements and book and video recommendations on our Web site, we have helped teachers develop their own lesson plans, modules, and course syllabi.

Is that as a direct result of your program?

AC: We do have teachers who say to us that they’re teaching bioethics already but want to do it better. Or they say “I think I’m interested in this and if you could help me I’d do it.” We’ve been a little surprised at where the interest has come from; it isn’t just science teachers. An English teacher might incorporate bioethics into a lesson on Margaret Atwood novels while a health teacher might work it into a section on sex education.

Sometimes teachers from different departments at the same school have come to us, saying they’re going to make the theme cut across disciplines, for example, history, English, and science. They might study what cloning is in science, look at the history of cloning disputes in history class, and read Frankenstein to capture more of a literary twist for English class. If we continue to expand this program, I think there are opportunities to drive cross-disciplinary teaching.

How have you been using the Internet and social media to enhance or improve the program?

DS: The Web site gets a lot of hits, and we receive inquiries from students. I think the site is a great way to show that the project has new content available. If Art gives a talk somewhere that’s related to bioethics, we’ll tweet a link or post a video of the talk. Many people use Facebook, too, so we’ve been building our Facebook page, and responding to inquiries about the program through the site.

Aside from social media, we have not ignored the more conventional ways of disseminating our work, such as festivals and conferences. I want to mention our participation in the Philadelphia Science Festival, which is going to happen in April. That’s a place that I think we’ll get a lot of exposure.

It seems that you’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the teachers involved, but what about the students?

DS: We get a lot of anecdotal praise from the teachers, and when we talk to student groups, we get the impression that they’re very much engaged with the issues. The questions I’m asked by high school students are remarkably thoughtful and sophisticated. Judging by the level of excitement about the issues, they’re very interested, but I don’t have any metrics. So anecdotally, the students love talking about bioethics, and one of the reasons we’re doing this program is because students pushed their teachers to get educated about it, by asking questions that the teachers couldn’t answer.

AC: Bioethics comes up in other unexpected settings, such as high school debates. If, for example, the state of Arkansas declares a debate on whether we should continue life support for people in permanent vegetative states, it’s the students that initiate the debates on these issues involved.

What did you set out to do at the beginning of the program and how far towards those aims are you now?

AC: I set out to meet what I perceived as a demand for bioethics resources because we were receiving unsolicited e-mails from school teachers and high school students asking for help on papers, projects, and teaching. I thought we should pull together a more systematic response to address their needs and provide online support. I believe we’re 60% towards where we want to be–to set up more workshops–but the difficulty is that teachers don’t have a lot of resources. If a workshop isn’t within driving distance, they’re not coming, because there’s no budget. So we’d like to have more regional workshops, and we also feel like we’re in a position to set up more national workshops.

The Web site is good, and it’s worked out well from where we started. We’ve seen real growth in the number of high school courses taught, but there are other obstacles. For example, we’ve been better at developing courses in private than in public schools. In private schools you can do anything by negotiating with the superintendent, whereas the public school curriculum is fixed to state requirements and there’s no bioethics on the state exam. I wish we could penetrate the public schools better. Over the years we’ve talked about getting states to institute some requirements for bioethics, but it’s a long process.  

What long-term outcomes do you hope this project achieves?

AC: We’d like to build a large enough cadre of teachers who can support one another, continue to educate themselves on their own, and keep the field moving as an interest group.