Stories from the Bioscience Ethics Classroom: Exploring undergraduate students' perceptions of their learning

- Wilhelmina Van Rooy and Irina Pollard*
School of Education and Department of Biological Sciences*,
Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.
Emails: wvanrooy@ted.educ.mq.edu.au
HREF="mailto:ipollard@rna.bio.mq.edu.au">ipollard@rna.bio.mq.edu.au
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 26-30.


Abstract

This article reports on a study designed to investigate undergraduate student expectations, experiences and learning outcomes of a new unit 'Introduction to Bioscience Ethics' taught in the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. The present paper was one of a series of presentations given (Paris, May 2000) by members of the IUBS Bioethics Committee at the International Symposium 'BioEd 2000: The Challenges of the Next Century'. Of interest were the values students placed on this unit in terms of information gained, practical understanding obtained, and challenge experienced about the social consequences of contemporary science and technology, and the consequent ethical responsibilities. Despite its methodological limitations, the study suggested that students actively engaged with the subject matter and preferred learning environments that supported and contested their understanding of concepts relevant to bioscience ethics and bioethics. In particular, students saw problem-based learning as effective because research findings and ethical dilemmas could be discussed with peers in a non-judgemental and collegial atmosphere. On the basis of our evidence, and because courses of this nature assist students to better face dilemmas that arise from the application of science and technology, we suggest that they, along with more traditional science courses, should become part of the science university curriculum.

Key Words: Biology, Bioethics, Bioscience ethics,

Undergraduate education, Continuing education.

Introduction

"The teacher held up to her class a three dimensional cone shaped object and asked students sitting around her in the room to tell her what they thought it could be. The boy behind the teacher said that it was definitely a circular disc, a girl sitting beside the teacher argued the point saying that it was a triangle, while another girl said it was a cylinder. An observant boy stood up, walked around the object observing it from all angles and then gave his opinion to which the other students were impressed."

Student 20 (Anonymous)

Conventional undergraduate science teaching and learning has as its focus the acquisition of facts, concepts, mechanisms and processes but not, as cited in the above scenario, learning from multiple perspectives. Bioethics is not part of traditional biology teaching. Social issues relating to the utilisation of scientific knowledge; that is, ethical considerations about use and responsibility are either addressed selectively by individual professors or simply not dealt with as an integral part of teaching and, by implication, student learning. Science, through medicine, has provided precise, quantifiable benefits for humanity. However, as with other all-powerful new technologies along with their benefits, there are risks, both real and perceived.

Can traditional bioethics satisfactorily encompass the explosion of biological and medical technologies? With the assistance of bioscience ethics we believe so. To incorporate current scientific insights of practical significance within a cultural context is an aim of bioethics - bioscience ethics aims at ensuring that scientific information is not omitted or corrupted in the process. It, therefore, resides at the interface between science and bioethics. If we wish to revise closely held traditional values in the search for a bioethics in tune with present-day reality, then we have to accept that science and technology is the factor that drives present-day social change. Thus, it is now opportune to re-evaluate this effect in the modern context - in particular to promote students' awareness of current bioethical issues raised by biological research and its technological applications. We would like to emphasize, however, that bioscience ethics does not displace bioethics, rather it wishes to swiftly democratise major scientific advances to help promote the development of a fully informed bioethics. Fundamental in this process, if the bioethical discussion is to be relevant to our knowledge-based lives, is the expectation of high biological standards (Pollard & Gilbert, 1997; Pollard, 1999).

In the literature concerned with bioethics teaching there are many successful examples of courses at undergraduate level for both specific student groups (Downie, 1993, 1995; Blake, 1994; Hill et al, 1998; Kopacz et al, 1999) and for cross discipline groups (Berglund, 1998). In addition, there is also a large body of research set within the context of science education which debates the nature of science, the ethics of scientific research, and the assertion that science is not value-free (Johnston, 1995; Allchin, 1999; Kovac, 1999). However, what these writings about the teaching of bioethics do not adequately provide is a view from the perspective of students. We do not know for example what subject matter knowledge undergraduate students access during such a course, the use to which they put this knowledge, nor the extent to which their involvement in any bioethics course contributes to their understanding of the epistemology of science, technology, bioscience ethics and bioethics.

The Introduction to Bioscience Ethics Unit

Our intention in the present study was simple. It seemed to us that we lacked an effective knowledge baseline relevant to any serious debate about the role of bioscience ethics in undergraduate studies or the possibility of developing its teaching within a multi-disciplinary student background. We wanted to find out what students following such a course had in terms of expectations, their experiences of such a course and what they saw was the value of it in terms of their own academic studies and future career plans. We hoped to find out something of their interests, their reflection on the key elements/aims of the unit and the extent to which the learning and teaching environments assisted in their learning. Moreover, we wanted to use this information to develop the existing course and make improvements where needed. The research reported in this study focuses on students and their expectations and experiences of a bioscience ethics course open to all undergraduates. Forty students enrolled for the initial summer course (February 2000) were from the departments of biology, chemistry, early childhood, economics, education, environmental studies, geology, statistics, law and women's studies.

As reviewed in the Introduction, the aims of this unit are to make common threads linking the power gained from science and technology with social consequences understandable, useful, and practical in everyday life but where no individual perspective is labelled 'definitive or superior'. The unit name and number is 'Introduction to Bioscience Ethics' Biology 240 with details provided at the following web-site:

http://www.bio.mq.edu.au/units/Biol240_pwd/ User name: Biol240 Password:ethics

The unit consists of structured formal lectures given by the unit coordinator (Pollard) and various guest lecturers who are expert in their field and who provide insights into current technology and practices. Lectures are complemented with video clips and problem-based learning activities conducted in small student groups where students were presented with 'real life' situations and asked to debate and discuss these with the task of presenting their ideas back to the larger student group. Each of these provides variety in both perspective and approaches to teaching and learning. Students are also required to perform in a group context because this experience, and its accomplishment, present powerful learning environments on many levels. Staff guide students to present their own chosen topic in the form of enigmas, conundrums, hypotheticals, dialogues, role-plays or visualisations. In particular, the unit seeks to raise students' awareness of contemporary bioethical issues raised by current biological research and its technological applications. Discord, diversity of opinion and participation is encouraged thus ensuring the exploration and expression of a wide variety of views, ethnicity and specialist training. The unit also raises the awareness of bioethical issues through education, and the hope that greater awareness among future scientists and the concerned individual will bring adaptive behavioural changes in the near future.

The above strategies provide direction mixed with the unique flavour of the specifics of group interaction and collaboration towards a common purpose. The group context soon creates a kind of alchemy, which inevitably becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Methods

The methods used were both quantitative and narrative/qualitative in approach. Multiple data sets were sought which would garner sufficient information to begin to understand students' responses to the unit in terms of their rationale and expectations, the depth of interest in the nominated topics, their preferred learning and teaching styles and any other themes resulting from a fine grain analysis of the data. We were of the belief that collecting data of various types on a range of questions would enable us to develop an understanding of how our students perceived the course and from this allow us to develop tentative reasons for making future changes to the unit's aims, structure and assessment. Specifically, we chose four ways to collect data about student responses to the unit:

First, on Day 1, students were invited to complete an anonymous survey which asked questions about their rationale and expectations of the unit regarding content, teaching, learning, the use of information and communication technologies, workload, assessment and any other comments thought relevant by students.

Second, non-identifiable student written critiques were collected at the end of the unit. These were open-ended in their approach and asked students to comment on any three aspects of the unit in terms of its stated aims.

Third, a teacher evaluation questionnaire based on a five point Likert scale, was administrated and analysed by the university's centre for professional development and sought students' responses about teaching. Ten questions were asked about the teachers' knowledge of the subject matter, their ability to stimulate both interest in the subject and intellectual curiosity, their clarity of explanation, their enthusiasm for teaching and for the subject, preparedness and lecture preparation, presentation and implementation. In addition students were asked to rate the teaching of the unit (see Table 1).

Fourth, semi-structured interviews of 20 minutes duration were conducted 6 months after examination grades had been released, with ten volunteers (five from biology and five from humanities). This allowed, potentially at least, for students who had not performed well in the examination and/or who were not pleased with the manner in which the unit was conducted, to come forward. In the interview we asked questions about their studies, continuing interest in bioscience ethics, teaching/learning style preferences, assessment and content retention over time. We sought comments about the issues raised in the unit and their relevance, opportunities to discuss further such issues, and where appropriate, their thoughts about the epistemology of biology, bioscience ethics and bioethics. We also sought critical comments about consolidation and change to the unit. Transcripts were forwarded to each participant for comment and correction.

It is not our intention here to attempt to formulate generalisations rather simply to present a narrative account of the views of students _ views that might help further understanding. Apart from the teacher evaluation questionnaire (Table 1), analysis followed the qualitative tradition of the social sciences namely in the development of themes grounded in all data (Glasser and Strauss 1967; Kvale, 1996; Miles and Huberman, 1994). The initial stage of analysis involved reading all data including repeated readings of the interview transcripts while listening to the tapes. This allowed us to develop a sense of the data corpus. The second stage involved focusing on common elements of the text, for example, student discourse about group discussion or beliefs about the use of animals for research. Elements were then grouped together in terms of commonality, for example, students' views about the content of the unit, and for the purposes of this study called themes. Results from the questionnaire informed each of the above three stages of analysis.

Findings

In this section we focus on students' perceptions of the unit and their possible concepts of bioethics and bioscience ethics given the limitations of the methodology as discussed above. We also make suggestions for future topics based on student feedback, changes to the unit structure and the on-going provision of readings and resources to assist student learning and the fostering of a wider public understanding of bioscience ethics. Here we report findings for the summer 2000 student cohort.

The major findings centre on four key areas:

The most common cited reason, evidenced in the pre-unit survey, as to why students decided to enrol in this summer unit, was the importance they placed on those stated aims of the unit which complemented their academic studies, in particular, the importance of broadening their understanding of the social,

Table 1: Teaching and Learning Likert Evaluation by Students for the Unit 'Introduction to Bioscience Ethics' Biology 240. Values represent percentages with forty students per parameter tested.

Parameter Tested (%)

Strongly

Agree

Agree

Neutral

Disagree

Strongly

Disagree

The teachers exhibited good knowledge of the subject matter

52.5

40.0

2.5

5.0

0

The teachers stimulated interest in the subject

52.5

37.5

5.0

2.5

2.5

The teachers were able to explain concepts clearly

45.0

40.0

15.0

0

0

The teachers stimulated intellectual curiosity

45.0

42.5

7.5

2.5

2.5

The teachers had enthusiasm for teaching

55.0

42.5

2.5

0

0

The teachers showed enthusiasm for the subject

50.0

50.0

0

0

0

The teachers were well prepared for each session

60.0

32.5

7.5

0

0

The teachers structured the subject content in ways which assisted learning

32.5

47.5

12.5

2.5

5

The teachers presented the subject matter clearly

30.0

62.5

2.5

5

0

Overall I would rate the teaching on this unit as

55.0

37.5

5.0

2.5

0

I have developed an interest in this subject

30.0

52.5

10.0

2.5

5.0

I have improved my oral communication skills

22.5

52.5

25.0

0

0

I have learned to take responsibility for my own learning

25.0

45.0

25.0

2.5

2.5

I have been encouraged to develop original ideas

37.5

45.0

15.0

0

2.5

I have learned to discuss

20.0

57.5

17.5

2.5

2.5

My understanding of concepts and principles in this field has improved

30.0

65.0

2.5

0

2.5

I have improved my ability to think critically in this unit

35.0

52.5

7.5

2.5

2.5

This unit/subject has helped me to grow and develop personally

27.5

50.0

17.5

0

5.0

As a result of studying this unit I have reconsidered many of my former viewpoints

12.5

45.0

27.5

5.0

10.0

I have been provided with a range of intellectual challenges in this unit

37.5

42.5

17.5

0

2.5

economic and ethical consequences of scientific and technological change through discussion of controversial issues. The following two quotes from interviewees capture the rationale for choice and the expectation that the unit would not be devoid of controversy:

"Well, I was becoming a little bit disillusioned with biology because I did not like how some of the lecturers and tutors were treating some of the lab animals. And I discussed this with other students and they said, Oh, if you feel like that you shouldn't be doing biology. I said, I think I should be doing it all the more. ... Then I read about bioscience ethics and I said this might be what I am looking for. I feel it has given me a voice _ that it is really okay to have those feelings _c if I am going into biology, I want to know the ethical issues and I want to know. I wanted a voice and how to approach these issues."

Student 7 (Biology)

"My major is statistics but I did a few different subjects like philosophy and astronomy. I am interested in the topics (bioethics) and I find that it is always controversial, and yes that is why I picked the course."

Student 8 (Commerce)

The above quotes support findings from the teacher evaluation questionnaire (Table 1), where over 80% of students reported that they had developed an interest in this subject, that they had been encouraged to develop ideas and that they were invited to reconsider former non-adaptive views. It would seem then that one of the aims of the unit had been realised _ the need to broaden one's understanding and awareness of the responsibility of science and technology within the social context.

The second key theme was about students' perceptions of the general aims, structure and subject matter of the unit. What we wanted to present to students were windows of academic opportunity whereby they could become more aware of the nexus between biological systems and the responsible use of technology. In order to achieve this purpose, topics were selected which were representative of current ethical debate and were likely to be somewhat familiar to students given the composition of the student cohort. For these reasons topics chosen included ones dealing with life and death issues, with awesome human technological power, and human dominated ecosystems. Even though these topics might well be familiar to most students, the nature and presentation of these topics in unfamiliar contexts allowed them to revisit the four bioethical principles of autonomy, nonmaleficence, justice and beneficence. This was most clearly illustrated by a geology student when discussing the ethics of parenting.

"Due to my earth science background I was quite unaware of how substance abuse before and during pregnancy can adversely affect the unborn in ways ranging from infertility and birth defects to mental and behavioural anomalies. I believe that many members of society fall into the same ignorant category as I did. For this reason more public awareness needs to be achieved before any real difference can be made."

Student 15 (Earth Science)

Students saw the guest lecturers, with expertise in specific areas of biology, as enhancing their learning by further elucidating the complexity of issues. Students made specific reference to the depth of thinking required of them and how the involvement of these lecturers illustrated in practical terms the necessity of having available a variety of perspectives on any one topic. As one student wrote in their critique:

"The guest lecturers have offered interesting alternative perspectives on the subject of bioethics. This enabled more learning to take place as the various people were specialised in different areas. It was a good way of modelling respect for other's opinions, as the students were exposed to more than just one lecturer's viewpoint. However, to have guest lecturers from other scientific disciplines other than biology, such as those from environmental science and chemistry may provide some different angle of thoughts."

Student 25 (Anonymous)

To the extent that student feedback suggested that the aims, content and structure were received favourably, we believe that the unit achieved what it intended. It would seem that the flow from science to technology to social implications to ethics made it easy for our students to follow the logic of various ethical arguments. We are in agreement with two students who made mention that even though student discourse was interesting "it would have been spiced up with the occasional dissenting voice, maybe a hard ask in our growing conservative society" and with several other students who noted that the list of topics did not include any mention of how ethics committees function or that many of their peers had taken the time to engage with readings. Each of these will be addressed in the future given our belief that such units ought to encourage and explore diversity and difference of viewpoints, attitudes and values. Moreover we were encouraged by students' willingness to sit a take-home exam as a major part of their assessment. This was a novel experience for many students and did not compromise their overall assessment; on the contrary the class standard achieved in this subject was exceptionally high.

Importantly, problem-based learning, using group work and discussion, was seen by students as the most effective learning strategy because it was here that research findings and ethical dilemmas addressed or alluded to in lectures could be widely discussed with peers in a non judgemental and collegial atmosphere. Group work allowed for reticent students to make a contribution to the discussion and for alternative perspectives not mentioned in the lectures to be presented and debated. In addition, problem based learning and group presentations facilitated the development and refinement of critical thinking in students. Discussion of bioethics dilemmas using small groups demonstrated the need for all participants to be well informed and to be prepared as voiced by one student in their critique "to argue and think on your feet" and "that when you take the time to look through the eyes of another, that often your own opinions can be changed". Moreover, students believed that by discussing ethical issues with peers and lecturers during whole class interactions, added an extra critical dimension to what was already academically challenging, interesting and thought provoking. These insights demonstrate two aspects about learning and teaching. First, students have a well-developed and sophisticated concept of what for them constitutes appropriate learning and teaching, and what they see as relevant units towards their degree. Second, in order to stimulate student awareness, it is not sufficient for the lecturers to be in possession of a deep and broad knowledge of the subject matter; rather practical wisdom, understanding and ethical responsibility are also essential and valued by students as learners. This is illustrated in Table 1 where 90% of students were of the view that when the teacher exhibited good knowledge of the subject matter from multiple perspectives, their understanding of concepts and relevant principles had improved. Students were also critical about several aspects, most notably group dynamics and time management. Two students commented in their interviews that their biology peers often dominated discussion by asking questions of a biological nature. It was not that they had any difficulties with the biological concepts; rather it was something they felt needed to be addressed in the future when groups were formed. For some students maturation time was important and it was these students who suggested in interviews and in their critiques that the unit ought to be extended. Typical of such concerns were comments such as:

"...with such an intensive week of information to explore and absorb, my only criticism is that there was not enough short _ethinking breaks' to stop and revive."

Student 27 (anonymous)

The last key theme, students' ideas about the nature of science/biology and bioscience ethics, was explored with each of the ten interviewees and proved to be the most difficult to unravel. There could be many reasons for this difficulty. It might be the case that these students have never been asked to articulate their understanding of and thinking about the nature of science and its epistemology. For example, when students were invited to explain how they thought scientists validated their knowledge claims, there was either no response or a comment indicated that they simply did not know. However, what was evident in their talk was that these students, irrespective of academic background, held a traditional, positivist view about the nature of science/biology and remarked that it was value neutral. Such a view is not surprising given the manner in which traditional undergraduate science units are taught. Typical remarks were:

"the fact is that science is neutral but the resulting knowledge and technology can be used in a constructive or destructive manner."

Student 6 (Statistics)

By contrast, both the manner in which scientific knowledge is used and the ethical responsibilities of scientists for that knowledge were seen by students as being value laden:

"Although science itself is ethically neutral, the uses for which it may be utilised are not, and scientists have a responsibility to contribute in deciding what and when their advances are used on an unsuspecting community and not to do with as they please _ it is essential that they are involved in the decision making process pre-utilisation."

Student 4 (Environmental Studies)

The challenge for us as teachers is to create learning situations where students are assisted not only in their articulation of what for them is the nature of science but also to present them with case studies and scenarios which question tacitly their understandings.

Conclusions

There was consensus amongst the students that the aims of the unit had been met and that conducting the unit outside of the university's teaching time allowed them to become immersed in the content and issues of the unit. Several interviewees suggested that the unit be extended giving more time for reflection on specific issues. This study also demonstrated that students' interest in bioscience ethics was across disciplines and that undergraduates chose this unit for several reasons; to complement and enhance their academic careers, to be intellectually challenged, to engage and extend thinking in novel ways they had not previously encountered, and to serve as a forum for discussion of controversial issues of a scientific/bioethical nature.

It was apparent that students are quick to learn and appreciate that science is also a social activity and as such is subjective and often bound by context. The students appreciated that they were not intellectually underestimated, and that their pre-existing knowledge base provided new prospects in the bioethical context. In the future we would like to provide increased teaching and learning environments that assist students to articulate their views about the nature of science/biology and bioethics, and use this knowledge to further refine the unit. Providing such environments will be a challenge in the years ahead. Interview dialogue suggests that it is probably difficult to access students' thinking of the nature of bioscience ethics without addressing other factors such as their views about the nature of science and their rationale for choosing the unit Introduction to Bioscience Ethics. What we do know from all the data is that students engaged with each of the topics, enjoyed thinking about the various perspectives on each bioethical dilemma, and welcomed the opportunity for working in various small groups.

In terms of research, we plan to conduct studies which focus on the nature of student discourse and thinking during problem solving sessions with follow up interviews. We are interested in their conception of bioscience ethics, their views about the topics within the unit and whether these change and mature on a long-term basis as a result of their learning. As both researchers and teachers we need to remain mindful of the comments from the little boy in the classroom vignette at the beginning of this paper, to consider the issue from various perspectives and to remember that there are often no definitive answers.

Acknowledgments

We would like to express our deep gratitude to all those adventurous souls making up the initial class of 2000. They wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embraced the challenges posed by bioscience ethics. We are additionally indebted to those who volunteered to be interviewed in their free time six months after the end of the unit.

References

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Berglund, C. A. Interdisciplinary Bioethics. Education & Health, 11:1998;93-97.

Blake, D. Revolution, Revision or Reversal: Genetics-Ethics Curriculum. Science & Education, 3:1994;373-391.

Downie, R. The Teaching of Bioethics in the Higher Education of Biologists. Journal of Biological Education, 27:1993;34-48.

Downie, R. Experience with a Dissection Opt-Out Scheme in University Level Biology. Journal of Biological Education, 29:1995;187-194.

Glasser, B.G. and Strauss, A.L. The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Aldine de Gruyter, Hawthorne, 1967.

Hill, R., O'Sullivan. H., Stanisstreet, M. and Boyes, E. Biology Students' Understanding of Cystic Fibrosis, Gene Therapy, and Gene Screening. Journal of Biological Education, 32:1998;103-110.

Johnston, J. Morals and Ethics in Science Education; Where Have They Gone? Education in Science, 163:1995;20-21.

Kopacz, D., Grossman, L. and Klamen, D. Medical Students and AIDS: Knowledge, Attitudes and Implications for Education. Health Education Research, 14:1999;1-6.

Kovac, J. Professional Ethics in the College and University Science Curriculum. Science & Education, 8:1999;309-319.

Kvale, S. Interviews: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing. Thousand Oaks, Sage, 1996.

Miles, M.B. and Huberman, A. M. Qualitative Data Analysis: A Sourcebook of New Methods. Newbury Park, Sage, 1994.

Pollard, I. and Gilbert, S. Bioscience Ethics _ A New Conceptual Approach to Modern Ethical Challenges. Eubios Journal of Asian & International Bioethics, 7:1997;131-135.

Pollard, I. Warfare Fitness Enhancement or Losing Strategy? A Bioscience Ethics Perspective. Eubios Journal of Asian & International Bioethics, 9:1999;50-54.

Web-Site to unit 'Introduction to Bioscience Ethics' http://www.bio.mq.edu.au/units/Biol240_pwd/ User name: Biol240 Password: ethics


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