A collaborative team of investigators from Michigan State University and the University of Idaho is working with instructors and students in interdisciplinary environmental science programs (IESPs) to conduct systematic, critical analysis of ethical concepts in the context of interdisciplinary environmental science. IESPs have multiplied in post-secondary and graduate curricula in response to pressing environmental problems. Ethical considerations are of immense importance in addressing environmental topics, because they often involve value judgments and the ethical issues involved are complex, multi-faceted, and high-stakes. Yet, ethics education materials for graduate IESP courses have not kept pace.
This education and research project is developing an approach to graduate ethics education in IESPs that can better prepare the next generation of environmental scientists to solve complex problems. Materials development is being guided by two pedagogical commitments: (a) a constructivist paradigm that recognizes the social and collaborative nature of learning; and (b) a commitment to problem-driven models of education. A structured, yet flexible, framework is being created to enable development of course modules that can subsequently be adopted for use in classroom dialogue, building on results of work previously funded by NSF (the Toolbox Project - NSF award #0823058). The framework consists of materials for instructors and students that help them identify contexts in their IESP where ethical dilemmas generated by value judgments are likely to occur. The framework has two dimensions, corresponding to "content" and "method". The "content" concerns value judgments that relate to (a) the conduct of interdisciplinary scientific research, and (b) the impact of interdisciplinary environmental science on societal needs and policies. The "method" engages students, as teams or groups, in critical, conceptual analysis of value and policy aspects of their own practice as scientists and engineers.
Students in courses using these modules will participate actively in identifying and assessing values-related challenges that are at the intersection of multiple environmental perspectives and at the intersection of science with policy. In addition to developing this framework, the project team is conducting a rigorous evaluation of its effectiveness for facilitating better consideration of ethical issues in IESP courses. Dissemination of the framework broadly through presentations and publications will strengthen interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate education and will also provide professional development opportunities, ethics training, and mentoring for graduate research assistants.