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Trials of teaching social ethics in sciences

Back when I started attending Purdue University in 2003, I joined a student group called Pugwash. It was the only student group that was openly inviting asking the hard questions regarding social ethics in the sciences, then setting up discussions with experts in the field regarding them.

For instance, one of my first meetings was on stem cell research, an understandably moral topic for some. The meeting started out with a professor in bioethics, whom I've long forgotten the name of, that went over the basics of what stem cell is, where the cells come from, how they are used, the pros and cons of the research, and the moral and legal implications of the field. It was absolutely the most transparent and honest presentation I had been to up till that time. I fell in love with the group instantly. I attended lectures, discussions, panels, and the yearly conferences for the entire 7 years I attended Purdue through my undergraduate and graduate degrees.

I absorbed everything that I learnt from Pugwash for my own personal knowledge and benefit. I never thought that I'd be faced with similar issues in my teaching passion, but I really ought to have known better. I understand that as an educator, I'm not legally or morally supposed to do anything that could be seen as brainwashing the children. In general, I'm very careful to say nothing that would offend or be perceived as influencing the kids unfairly. This past week, though, my normal bunch of kids that I tutor started to challenge my system of carefully avoiding the tough questions.

As a tutor and volunteer, I don't stand as much to lose as a full fledged teacher. I could lose my contracts, be asked to not come back to my volunteer work, and I could lose my reputation for being a good educator. But I wouldn't lose my license and be unable to teach. So, when my normal group started asking me hard questions that I couldn't deflect readily, I had to figure out a way to respond that didn't cause me to lose what I had already built up.

The answer came to me not from political ideas or social mores. Instead, the answer came from my time at Pugwash. During my 7 years of involvement with the group, I learnt how to think about the hard questions critically and understand all sides to the issue. This enable people to come to their own conclusions based on their personal beliefs and ideologies. It also keeps me from offending anyone while I truly live my passion of educating.

So, instead of answering questions for the students, I showed them how to look up the sides of the story, think critically and develop a debate for both sides. I encouraged the students to understand any and all sides of the issues, the things that drive them, and see the what is underneath the surface of the argument. I had more than a few complaints about the amount of work it takes to really do this. However, I've also received a few notes of thanks. It is these notes that I keep pinned to my cork-board of inspiration. They remind me that while teaching people to think critically is not always the easiest or the most socially acceptable way, there are the brave few that are happy for the push.

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