Integrating Ethics Into Your STEM Lessons

By Anne Jolly


Society and industry are driving the push for kids to be creative, innovate, solve problems, and develop solutions.  One thing seems notably lacking —what about the impact of the solutions we come up with? Our ability to create, invent, and innovate seems to be outstripping our ability to manage those technologies appropriately.  Our students will deal with decisions involving food shortages, housing shortages, cloning, adapting to climate change, drones, availability and affordability of medicines, data chip implants, genetic testing, and hundreds more. Are they prepared to make those decisions ethically?

One overarching need that teachers in all subject areas can directly address involves helping kids to analyze the human impact of the solutions and technologies we invent. Think about history class: the study of history is ideal for revealing beneficial and harmful social impacts of technologies by setting these in wide historical contexts. Current technology creation and use offer opportunities for analysis in all subjects. For example, think about the positive and negative aspects of cell phones or social media. And consider a looming concern for our near future– artificial intelligence.  All are fodder for a PBL school-based approach. Our inventors and entrepreneurs must make decisions based on ethical considerations and responsible conduct.

STEM is particularly well-positioned as a natural training ground for responsible and ethical thinking. Each challenge provides opportunities for students to delve into ethical decision-making. Making ethical decisions must become part of their STEM – and later their professional – identities.  But what skills do students need to meaningfully and effectively engage in ethical discussions and decisions?


Guiding Ethical Decision-making

In my search for answers to the above question, I located a free Ethics Primer from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (downloadable as a PDF). This publication strongly recommends that the study of ethics begin through exploring a case study or a scenario; and offers lessons for helping students recognize, question, and discuss bioethics. You might want to check this one out!

Your STEM lesson provides a perfect kickoff for an ethics discussion since a scenario always accompanies the real-world problem kids are trying to solve.  From there, ethical principles and practices can be built naturally into the lesson.

As an example, in a lesson on conserving energy students might work on building efficient wind turbines for generating inexpensive electricity – a real need. In the real world, while attempting to install the turbines they would be likely to run across opposition from environmental groups who point out threats to wildlife, and from homeowners who don’t want the turbines devaluing their property or being a blight on the landscape.

How might students approach this conflict? They might use questions such as these:

  • What background information do we know about this issue?
  • Who or what is affected by this issue?
  • What benefits might result from our solution?
  • What harm could result from our solution?
  • Which results will create the greatest good? (Express their own values and explore the values of others with acceptance empathy.)
  • How do we need to revise our options and plans? (Negotiate solutions.)
  • What is our decision?

In reaching their decision, students will often find it useful to apply these ethical principles mentioned in the Primer.

  1. Care: use compassion and care about finding a right solution.
  2. Respect individuals and their right to make independent choices.
  3. Be of benefit: in other words, do good and not harm.
  4. Be just: treat others fairly and distribute benefits/burdens fairly.


What Can STEM Educators Do?

What can you do to help your students develop their ethical side? Is there a way to integrate ethics into your STEM classes? Keep in mind that ethical issues involve a wide range of perspectives, values, beliefs and attitudes. Your classroom environment must be a safe zone where students can share their views and listen to one another with respect.

You might involve experts in discussing various perspectives with your students. Case studies are often compelling if they describe situations students care about.

The Ethics Primer introduces basic concepts of ethics and offers lesson strategies and rubrics, followed by teacher backgrounders, handouts, and a variety of suggested formats.

The Science Learning Hub offers a long list of classroom strategies for teaching ethics. As a STEM teacher, choose an approach that fits in with your STEM challenge. This site also offers examples of bioethical issues, teacher resources, and student activities.

Colorado STEAM educator Ruth Catchen (@ruthcatchen), sums it up this way: “Ethical considerations is one of the Engineering Habits of Mind and must be given its due along with Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, Optimism and Systems Thinking. It is one thing to encourage a student to brainstorm ideas to solve a real-world problem and another entirely to consider what are the consequences of that solution. Does the end justify the means?”

I’m hoping that in many schools and classrooms, the concept of public and professional ethics is already being explicitly taught within the STEM context. (Notice that ethics and character education are not synonymous.) For a safe and protected future, teaching ethics in STEM is essential!


About the author:

Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal and on her STEM by Design website.



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