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Preparing the next generation of physicists to consider ethics and society

MAY 12, 2023
Physics research has societal implications; these lesson plans teach students how to engage with them.
Preparing the next generation of physicists to consider ethics and society internal name

Preparing the next generation of physicists to consider ethics and society lead image

Physics students are often motivated by their desire to understand the world around them and use science to benefit society. Yet discussions of ethics and society are rarely included in physics curricula. Olmstead et al. developed ethics lessons about nuclear physics and the Thirty Meter Telescope to facilitate engagement with physics and society.

“Physics research is about much more than just equations and experiments,” said author Alice Olmstead. “It’s connected to and part of society, and we, as physics instructors, have a responsibility to support students in thinking about physics holistically.”

Both lessons reflect seven identified curricular and pedagogical features key to successful physics ethics lessons. Students begin by envisioning how to engage in productive discussions. The instructors emphasize in the publication, and to their students, that their goal is not to impose their views on the class, but for the students to develop their own perspectives.

Instructors can adapt the framework of these lessons to fit their courses. Even the authors modified the nuclear ethics curriculum after observing that students had difficulty relating to the limited diversity of scientists with decision-making power involved in the Manhattan Project. By understanding and adapting to the students’ needs, they created a lesson that resonated.

Students not only reported changing their perspectives but also that the lessons were a course highlight.

The authors hope to connect with other physics instructors to incorporate ethics into physics education.

“Implementing ethics lessons in physics classrooms can be difficult at times, but it can also be extremely rewarding,” said Olmstead. “All of my co-authors and I tried to approach this with humility, but we always had optimism about how meaningful experiences like this can be for students.”

Source: “How can we design instruction to support student reasoning about physicists’ ethical responsibilities in society?,” by Alice Olmstead, Brianne Gutmann, Egla Ochoa-Madrid, Alexander Vasquez, Ciana Pike, and Daniel Barringer, The Physics Teacher (2023). The article can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1119/5.0087490 .

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