Bioethical issues affect us all at one time or another, from genetic testing, cloning, and infertility treatments to stem-cell research, euthanasia, and organ donation.
Next month, a group of educators will gather at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore for a conference on teaching bioethics in high school. Billed as a "first of its kind" conference for the Mid-Atlantic region, the event is designed for high school teachers in science, social studies, humanities, philosophy, and religion, as well as school leaders and district administrators.
"Our whole approach, at least at Loyola, ... is it's better to teach it across the curriculum rather than have a course," said Joseph Procaccini, an associate professor of educational leadership and philosophy at Loyola who is playing a lead role in the conference.
"I started studying ethics and genetics 10 or 15 years ago," Mr. Procaccini said, "and I realized that a lot of colleges were teaching bioethics, but no one was doing it at the high school level."
He added: "The reason why we encourage it at the high school level is, A, certainly most of the youngsters are at the age where they can make moral judgements. ... Also, because they're going to be citizens, we want them to be informed decisionmakers."
Sessions at the Nov. 8 conference will make the case for why bioethics should be taught in high school, discuss fundamental principles of the discipline, illustrate methods for integrating it into the curriculum, and share resources.
To be sure, this is not the first effort to get bioethics into schools. For example, with support from the National Institutes of Health, the Education Development Center, or EDC, developed a bioethics curriculum several years ago to be integrated with high school biology courses.
"We felt this was an interesting way to teach science," said Jacqueline Miller, a senior research scientist at EDC. "We also felt students need to know how to be informed about the choices they're making in life."
She emphasized that making ethical judgements on biological topics requires understanding the scientific facts in question. She also highlighted key ethical considerations explored in the program, including fairness, responsibility, harms, and benefits.
"We really wanted the kids to know, you don't just say this is right and this is wrong," she said.
A foreword to the teacher's guide to Exploring Bioethics explains that the curriculum uses "real-life cases" to examine ethical issues in medicine and the life sciences. "Design elements emphasize key bioethical concepts and analytic methods, cutting-edge science content, real-world scenarios, and built-in assessment tools," it says.
Katherine Paget, also a senior research scientist at EDC, cited several challenges with the project. One was figuring out how to fit the material into the biology curriculum in a seamless way.
"We worked very hard to figure out how things would naturally fit in," she said. For example, she explained that one unit concerns state vaccination policies and fits with the study of infectious diseases. (Other units focus on organ transplantation, human experimentation, genetic testing, and human responsibilities toward animals.)
Another challenge, Paget said, was helping biology teachers develop effective strategies to engage in classroom discussion.
"Very often, science teachers in high school don't spend a lot of time with discussion," she said. "It's not their M.O." And so she said teachers need professional development not simply to cope with the ethical nature of the issue, but also to develop better skills in leading a discussion.
The NIH provided nearly $1 million to support development of this curriculum supplement, which was published in 2009 and is free to educators around the country upon request.
You can access additional educational materials developed with support from the NIH here.