"Experiencing Ethics" Course Blends Theory with Practical Experience

"Experiencing Ethics" Course Blends Theory with Practical Experience
NSF Institutional Award to UH Supports Novel Science Ethics Coursework

Reaching beyond lecture and debate, the science ethics course taught through the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics provides students with the opportunity to experience ethics through involvement in peer review and human and animal research.

The course, open to all disciplines, combines theory, case studies, and participation in ethics practicums.

“We start with issues that are fundamental to human nature, ethics, and philosophy and make them more concrete through specific, infamous cases and how those cases affected our current standards,” said Ioannis Pavlidis, the Eckhard Pfeiffer Professor of Computer Science and one of the faculty members who developed the course. “The novel aspect of the course is the experiential component involving exposure to peer review and human and animal research.”

The course, now in its third year, is the collaborative effort of four University of Houston faculty members representing different disciplines – educational psychology, philosophy, science ethics and science. The investigative team includes Pavlidis, Ioanna Semendeferi (science ethics), Dov Liberman (educational psychology) and David Phillips (philosophy).

The course continues to be supported by the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and the group recently received a three-year, National Science Foundation (NSF) institutional grant of $300,000 to support further course development.

“Institutional grants in this area are highly competitive. The NSF funds only two or three of the approximately 60 applications received each year,” Pavlidis said. “We are pleased to receive this grant; it took us three years of intensive efforts to obtain it.”

Science ethics touches all disciplines of science. The investigators in this educational research effort want to ‘cultivate’ students who will do the right thing once they are in the workplace making decisions that impact lives.

The Ethics in Science course (IDNS 4391 and IDNS 6391) is offered every fall semester and typically covers treatment of animals and humans, peer review, conflicts of interest, and public health. Pavlidis said that the course is particularly useful for Ph.D. students who have a research orientation and undergraduates with an interest in health care careers. The course draws a broad cross section of students from many UH colleges.

“Despite the differences in disciplines, when it comes to research there are two things that are universal – peer review and human and animal experiments,” he said.

For the practicums, students are assigned mentors from UH or the Texas Medical Center who guide them through exposure to scientific paper peer review or experience in conducting human and animal research. A number of journals and conferences have signed agreements with the faculty that will allow members of the class to participate in supervised peer-review experiences.

“A publication comes to a senior scientist for peer review. The student gets to sit in with the reviewer/mentor and to participate in the step-by-step process of critiquing a publication for a journal or conference,” Pavlidis said.

Students participating in the human and animal research practicum are embedded with research teams for a month or two gaining exposure to all aspects of the research process from the screening and interviewing of subjects to the actual execution of the research protocol.

“The real-life exposure gained through the practicum is invaluable because it transforms the abstract nature of the theory into a concrete experience,” Pavlidis said.

The Ethics in Science educational project also supports a relevant seminar series with distinguished lecturers. The next lecture, “Engineering Success and Failure on 9/11,” will be given by Dr. Sarah Pfatteicher from the University of Wisconsin on April 27. Information about this and all other Ethics in Science activities at UH can be found at www.uh.edu/ethicsinscience.

- Kathy Major, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics