What are the consequences of gene splicing? Is it wrong for doctors to lie to patients when testing placebos? And who determines the best language modality for a child with a disability?
Those are some of the ethical problems that are discussed every few weeks with Rochester Institute of Technology faculty over lunch in Liberal Arts Hall.
Ethics Across the Curriculum was created last year to bring faculty from across RIT together to talk about ethical issues that could arise in their course teachings, so they may consider raising those issues with their students.
“I think ethics is already infused in the curriculum,” said Wade Robison, the Ezra A. Hale Professor of Applied Ethics who hosts the discussions. “None of us are experts in all the disciplines represented in the group, but when one of us talks about what they do with their peers, we can give some ways ethical consideration can enter in.”
For example, a biomedical engineering class was discussed, including gene cutting that could eliminate birth defects or reduce the chances a baby would be born with certain characteristics. “You really don’t quite know what you’re upsetting,” Robison said.
Recently, Dr. Laurence Sugarman, director of the Center for Applied Psychophysiology and Self-Regulation at RIT, spoke to the group about the way placebo research is done—where patients are told a pill could help them when it may not be medicine.
“Research with placebos requires deception,” Sugarman said. “I want to engage students to think about whether they do harm to engage their work. This integration into ethics is not just in the curriculum, but throughout the course.”
Professor David Neumann from the School of Communication joined the discussion group this year.
“Engaging with scientists, technologists, journalists and educators in these discussions is a very interesting process,” he said. “It gives me the opportunity to hear how faculty from across the institute develop teaching materials focused on helping students grapple with complicated issues. Because we seem to be in a culture that offers simple solutions to complex problems, helping students to see past simplicity into the underlying clutter of complex issues is so very important.”
It’s the second year Sugarman has been in the group.
“As a clinician-physician-researcher who has never thought of ethical principles in engineering, and how you integrate that into the training of those students, it’s kind of mind-bending and wonderful to discuss,” he said.
The idea of peer-to-peer interaction in general was part of the appeal for Sugarman. “I am relatively new to academia and RIT and this gives me the opportunity to meet faculty from across the campus and to learn more about how people are teaching and how classes are structured.”
Sara Schley, an associate professor at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, said the sessions have helped her relate to education of students with disabilities. Issues such as what language modality is best for students and who gets to decide that are often debated.
“It’s been a great experience to work collaboratively with faculty from all over campus,” Schley said. “There are a lot more opportunities that I ever thought possible for collaboration and intersection across different colleges on campus.”
Robison said he’d like to see RIT offer a minor in ethics, which would add value to graduates’ degrees and resumes.