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02/17/2016

Bioethics in Action: Bringing Bioethics Deliberation into the Classroom

This is the first post in our “Bioethics in Action” series of blogs. Check back here for more posts in this series.

As the Bioethics Commission continues its work on deliberation and education, we wanted to highlight an approach situated at the intersection of deliberation and bioethics education. Dr. Rachel Fink, a developmental biologist and professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College, has worked hard and thought creatively about how best to incorporate the ethical and policy dimensions of pressing scientific issues into her basic science courses.

Dr. Fink’s interest in incorporating these ethical and policy dimensions was first piqued when headlines reported the cloning of “Dolly the Sheep.” As Dr. Fink stated, “I ran into class with the headline from that New York Times saying ‘This is one of the most exciting things! Let’s talk about it.’” Over time, Dr. Fink’s approach to incorporating bioethical issues into classroom discussions grew more systematic.

As detailed in an article published in Cell Biology Education, over the course of a semester, Dr. Fink leads a group of seniors in studying the ethical and policy implications of a particularly challenging scientific issue. Past topics have ranged from cloning to embryonic stem cells—in other words, the issues that, as Dr. Fink notes, “bring up conflicts in all thoughtful members of our society.” Dr. Fink has each student in her upper-level course take on the persona of a national or international figure involved in considerations of the particular issue. At the end of the semester, the upper-level students stage a mock deliberation for introductory biology students, presenting a wide range of perspectives on the issue under consideration. In past semesters, upper-level students have taken on the personae of the current Bioethics Commission members and members of the former President’s Council on Bioethics (2001-2009).

A critical advantage of assigning personae to the different students is that it allows for a range of diverse views to be presented. Per Dr. Fink, “Many students have a kind of natural discomfort with having to have their own views put forward as part of the conversation. By taking on the persona of someone else, you can have a thoughtful debate about the pros and cons of something. And yet, nobody’s ego is on the line.” Letting students choose their personae also enables students to explore viewpoints that are distinct from their own: “Some students pick someone who lines up exactly with their views, and others will say, ‘I’m completely liberal, I want to portray the most conservative voice I can find because I’ve never read that stuff. I want to really read their arguments.’”

For the introductory biology students who observe the mock deliberation, the experience is tremendously beneficial. As Dr. Fink observes, “The intro students are used to having adults talk to them and at them and in front of them all the time. By having students as the experts, they really respond to that.” One student summed up her experience observing the mock deliberation as follows: “Normally when you hear debates in this subject, it is either wrong or right to support this, that’s it. But I gathered a really clear understanding of the spaces in between, which made my opinions of the matter more clear.”

In fact, the experience of observing the mock deliberation can be so powerful that many of the students applying to join the upper-level course list their experience observing the mock deliberation as a key factor motivating their decision to enroll. Bringing bioethics deliberation into the classroom is a potentially powerful tool in getting students thinking about and engaged in bioethical issues.

Fink and co
Image: Dr. Fink and Mount Holyoke students at Meeting Twenty-Three of the Bioethics Commission in Arlington, VA (11/17/2015)

Sources: Fink, R.D.. (2002). Cloning, stem cells, and the current national debate: Incorporating ethics into a large introductory biology course. Cell Biology Education, 1(4), 132-144. Interview with Dr. Rachel Fink conducted by E.R. Pike on January 13, 2016.

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