Initial Publication Date: March 28, 2014 | Reviewed: July 11, 2017

Do the Right Thing

David Mogk, Montana State University-Bozeman


Earth Scientists often work independently in laboratory or field situations, and may be confronted with ethical challenges at times when their is no external scrutiny of one's conduct. How can we best train students to "do the right thing" in accordance with professional ethical standards? A number of scenarios are presented so that students must consider the context, conduct, and consequences of their actions.



Scenarios are described that can be inserted into courses for majors at different levels of instruction.  This is an exercise in self-reflection of personal values and conducts for students at all stages of their professional development training.  What do you do when a challenge or dilemma arises and no one is looking?  How do you decide? How do you feel about your self?  How does this impact your relation with the profession? What are the consequences?

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

For a given class, students should be familiar with standard professional practices appropriate for that course. A review of the AGI, GSA, and/or AGU Codes of Conduct and Ethics would be useful before doing this exercise.

How the activity is situated in the course

These exercises are intended to be used to promote short discussions on ethical issues that may confront students in their professional lives; the discussions can be done as a complement to instructional units in courses, and adds an ethical dimension to coverage of course materials that are otherwise focused on concepts, content, and skill development. The ethical situations used for discussion can be the basis for reflective discussion about: "What would you do?"


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The major goal of these exercises is to extend coverage of a given topic in standard courses to include consideration of ethical situations that may confront students. By practicing ethical reasoning in class situations, students will be better prepared to address ethical issues related to their professional lives.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students have to understand the full context of the ethical dilemma, including ambiguity, uncertainty, causality, and consequences of (in)action.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students have to be able to articulate the central question, explore evidence, develop and deliver arguments in either the written or spoken word. For more in-depth exploration of the topics, students may also want to search the WWW, databases and other sources to look for similar cases, precedents, and outcomes.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Description and Teaching Materials

At the end of a major unit in an Earth Science course, ethical scenarios are presented to the class that bear on the material just covered. Explorations of the situation, actions taken by individuals, the consequences and remedies may be explored through a number of active learning strategies:

Case Study Scenario

Dave Mogk's students on the SEM. Details
The following are descriptions of a number of situations that confront students with the ethical conduct of science. These are intended to be inserted into standard course instruction to overtly require students to consider ethical impacts of their actions as a complement to other course content and skill development. At the end of each scenario, ask the students "What would you do?" and "What are the consequences?"

  • Mineralogy/Petrology/Geochemistry: You have a limited supply of material that you are assigned to analyze (e.g. whole rock geochemistry, mineral XRD, mineral separates for age dating....). a) You manage to spill the sample on an unclean bench top. b) You discover that the sample preparation equipment you're using is contaminated as it was not cleaned properly by the prior user. What would you do? (Scrape the material up and continue your work? Report to your supervisor?)...
  • Mineralogy/Petrology/Geochemistry: You are using the electron microprobe late at night. After a long session, it appears that the instrument is drifting and giving increasingly unreliable results. What would you do? (Take the time to restandardize and recalibrate? Note the problem in your lab book, and decide to continue to collect data but plan to apply an "empirical" correction later? Call it a night and start fresh again later?)....
  • Field Geology: It's been a long day in the field. Weather hasn't cooperated. It's getting late. You haven't finished your planned traverse, and logistics dictate that you won't be able to come back to this place. What would you do? (Continue your traverse til it's not possible to continue to map/collect? Extend the traverse without obtaining the detail in mapping/sampling that would otherwise be expected? Consider safety/responsibility to yourself, your field partners, others at camp who may be expecting you)....
  • Field Geology: You are at a one-of-a-kind, iconic geologic heritage site (or National Park). Collecting samples is not permitted (or at least not encouraged). But you just discovered a really excellent sample that a) may be really important for your research interests, b) would be a nice addition to your teaching collections, c) would really be a nice addition to your personal collections. What would you do? (Slip a piece in your pack--there's more and it won't be noticed? Take a picture but leave the sample?)....What if you needed a hammer and chisel to extract the sample?

Please add additional scenarios via the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I am a soccer referee. We spend a great deal of time watching game clips, poring over the Laws of the Game, so that we will be prepared for that really odd situation that is sure to pop up in my next game. The same principle applies to training students in ethics--practice early, practice often. I would suggest that it will pay great dividends to periodically take a few minutes in class to present students with ethical cases or dilemmas, and encourage them to work through an acceptable solution. Resources to the Ethical Codes of Conduct of professional societies are linked elsewhere in this module. How will students learn and prepare themselves for ethical conflicts if we don't overtly present these types of issues in our classes.

We have been advocating Teaching Metacognition in which we present strategies for students to be self-monitoring and self-regulating in their personal professional development as they master concepts, content and skills. This requires students to overtly address not only the "what" of Earth Science, but also the "how do you know?" Adding the ethical dimension requires students to also answer: "What are the implications or consequences; who or what is impacted; and then what?"

I would also suggest that teaching GeoEthics should be an integral part of Teaching the Methods of Geoscience (InTeGrate worskhop, June 2013) and that some degree of ethical training can be added to virtually any course as an identified student learning outcome, without diminution of other standard content or skills.


Evaluation: I would not evaluate the discussion or written contributions of the students by assigning grades (perhaps credit for participation). However, I would assess via observation and discussion with the students the many facets of the scenarios: Do students understand the scientific context of the scenario? Do they understand the professional standards that apply? Do they understand the seriousness of any ethical breaches? Do they understand the potential impacts or consequences to their own professional reputation, to their lab or co-workers, to the profession, to the community. The maturity of the responses will vary according to the experience of the students and their level of instruction. All faculty have sufficient professional experience to ably lead discussions of this nature, even if it approaches topics that may be collectively very uncomfortable.

References and Resources