Students Broaden Ethical Outlooks in Biobehavioral Health Course

January 4, 2010

Dr. Byron Jones starts his class off each semester by having his students read creation stories and myths: Prometheus stealing fire from the Greek Gods, Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge in Eden. This isn’t a comparative literature or a religious studies course, though. For Jones, the meaning of these stories lies in their ethical implications: whether or not pursuing knowledge is natural, and if so, are our current pursuits ethically sound?

Jones, a professor of biobehavioral health (BBH) and pharmacology, discusses these stories as part of his BBH honors course (BBH 301H: Values and Ethics in Human Development Professions) to try to get his students to think about the foundations of ethics. Understanding this will give students a better grasp on how ethical principles can shape not only decision making but the entire structure of organizations that are an integral part of students’ future scientific careers.

Jones’ class, an honors section that is “aggressive in its approach to learning,” he says, is composed of students preparing for a range of careers involving science. He takes a number of approaches—discussions, diaries, and debates—to underscore the far-reaching influence of bioethics.

Each class period begins with “What’s in the news?”—a chance for students to bring up news items that pertain to topics they have discussed in class. For instance, one class started with a study that showed that pigs could use mirrors to find a bowl of food (for more information on the study, visit www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/48133/title/Pigs_use_mirrors)—an interesting study, but also one that has implications for animal rights and how animals can or should be used in research. Jones wanted his class to consider whether or not the study showed that pigs have self-recognition, a quality that is considered when determining whether or not certain animal research is ethical.

For the remainder of class, then, Jones stokes the fire of sometimes heated debates over ethical issues. “He gets us to question our own thoughts on ethics, and he wants us to see the consequences of decisions we and others make in regards to health/research,” says Rachel Blick, a Psychology major in the class.

Once every week, students have to reflect on topics they discussed in class through a diary, which forms the basis of students’ grades. This “summary of thoughts,” says Morgan Figurelle, a BBH student in the class, is a “laid back, low-pressure” environment where students can mull over the discussions and formulate their own opinions on ethical matters.

Jones says his intention with the diary was to foster a conversation with his students. For many students, this was highly effective. “The diary allows us to be very reflective of what we learn, and to form and articulate opinions,” says Blick.

The semester ends with the “dilemma blitz”—a series of fifteen-minute debates between pairs of students, which gives students a chance to debate in a more formalized manner than class discussions. Each pair of students comes up with their own topic for this, and gets pre-approval from Jones. After their fifteen minutes in a one-on-one debate, the rest of the class has the opportunity to give feedback.

The numerous discussions Jones implements as part of his class—individual, group, and one-on-one—help students understand the broader implications of ethics in the news, in science, and in their future careers.

-hhd-

Editors: Byron Jones can be reached at bcj1@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.