Initial Publication Date: May 26, 2014 | Reviewed: July 6, 2017

Geology in the City: Ethical Issues

Anne Marie Ryan, Dalhousie University


This is a work in progress.
We make decisions every day in our lives as earth scientists, many of which have ethical implications. In this activity, students apply their growing body of knowledge and skills to a real-world geoscience case, with the opportunity to make explicit the ethical aspects of the scientific work involved, as well as ethical aspects of working with individuals and the greater society, while also exploring their own values and ethics. Making explicit the ethical issues involved in turn leads to practicing ethical decision-making skills in the context of the problem addressed, through small group problem-solving and class discussion. The case presented is a pilot study on metals in urban soils, and takes the students through the thinking processes involved from project set up to end. The case specifically addresses ethical decision-making at the beginning of a pilot project (involving scientific, societal and personal ethical concerns), throughout the project (involving scientific and personal ethical concerns), and in the communication of the results to the public (involving scientific, societal and personal ethical concerns).


This activity can be used at various stages in courses for Geoscience majors or for non-majors, and in particular, in the following: Introductory Geology, Environmental Geology, Urban Geology, Geochemistry, Soils, Forensic Geology, Medical Geology

Class size: This activity can be done in any size class, as it involves students working in groups of 3-5.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students should be familiar with the scientific method. This case lends itself to incorporating geologic knowledge and skills at a variety of levels. This activity is best presented in the context of the material in a specific course, and as an extension through application, group work, and discussion of the topic at hand. Although this particular case involves soil sampling, it is possible to address the same ethical principles if water sampling, or even rock sampling is considered instead.

How the activity is situated in the course
This activity is best presented in the context of the material in a specific course (for example: for Introductory Geology, this could follow on a class on weathering and soils or a class on water and mobility of elements; in an Urban (or Environmental) Geology course, this could follow a class on natural and anthropogenic contaminants in the environment; in a Geochemistry class, this could follow a class on metal behaviour in the near-surface environment, etc).


Content/concepts goals for this activity
  • Through applying newly-learned (geo)science knowledge and skills, AT THE SAME TIME as identifying and making explicit ethical issues in a real-world geoscience context, students can begin to see that ethics and societal issues are not separate from our science, but rather integral to it.
  • Through the practice of systematic decision-making, students establish ethical courses of action (from a scientific, societal and personal perspective), and can begin to develop a recognition of the complexity and uncertainty involved in geoethical decisions, as well as consideration of the consequences of their action or inaction.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
  • APPLICATION of new knowledge and skills
  • ANALYTIC reasoning
  • SYNTHESIS of scientific reasoning WITH ethical reasoning

Other skills goals for this activity
  • Working in groups / Suspension of bias and consideration of other perspectives

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

In small groups:
  • Students IDENTIFY possible ethical principles, dilemmas, and conflicts involved at a number of stages of a real-world geoscience problem.
  • Through group discussion and consensus, students use a systematic ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING process to choose a course of action.
  • Questions for student discussion and reflection are modified from Davis (1997).

Whole class debriefing:

  • addresses outstanding issues, clarifying concerns, reflection on what has been learned

Description and Teaching Materials

This case study is based on an actual undergraduate class research project.
In the context of their geoscience learning, working in small groups and with a whole-class debriefing, students consider a real-world geoscience project, and explore the ethical considerations involved: (a) early in project development; (b) throughout the course of the project: and (c) in project completion and public communication of results. Scientific, societal, and personal ethical aspects are woven into the choices and decisions made.

Case Study Scenario

You are part of a research team undertaking a pilot study on metals in city soils, and you will be collecting samples from private homes to do this work. Your hypothesis is: soils from nearest the house itself will have relatively higher levels of lead and other metals (from paint used in these older houses) than soils from beside the roadside (which have collected metals from car exhausts, gasoline fumes, etc) or ambient soil samples, away from either point source contaminant.

You and the rest of the research team sample a number of locations*, prepare the samples for analysis**, analyze the samples*** and find that not only do most samples nearest the homes have higher lead values and other metals, these values may be as high as 10x greater than recommended guidelines for some metals. You had told homeowners that you would share the results with them****.

Teaching Notes and Tips

In the case provided, there are 4 particular places where ethical decision-making comes into play (*, **, ***, and **** in the case scenario). It is possible to concentrate on any one of the four steps, to explore the project as an overview of all steps involved, or to take each step sequentially as a series of 4 different classes, in which one builds on the other around the central theme for a given module, for example.

Depending on the geoscience background of the students and the time available, some or all of the following questions may be included for the students' consideration.

(*) Prior to beginning the study

1. Among other questions, students need to consider the following: (in addition to recognition around a literature search to see what others have done, etc)

Scientific ethical considerations: Where best to take samples from a geoscience perspective: What do they consider, and why? What scientific considerations do they evaluate? For example: ow deep do they sample? Do they remove organics? Do they remove pebbles? How far from the house do they sample? Are they consistent in their methods across different locations? What do they record? What identifiers or otherwise do they include?

Societal ethical considerations: Students need to consider homeowners and property issues: Do they have a plan for protecting homeowner's privacy? What about requesting permission? What information do they share with the homeowners? Do they give homeowners contact information for any questions they may have? Who is the contact person? Do they "leave no footprint", or are they careless in their approach? What are the potential consequences of what they do and what they do not do?

(**) and (***) During the study - processing the samples, etc: Methods, results, and analysis: (scientific ethics)

Students need to consider: What methods they will use (are they appropriate? are the the best? how does cost factor in? what preparation, if any, they will do, and why? what analytical methods they will use, and why?). How do these potentially effect the outcome (positively and negatively?) In carrying out the analyses and recording the data: What care do they take to ensure no cross-contamination? How do they process the analytical results? How should they handle outliers? Should they run duplicate samples? How do they handle duplicate sample results? What do they do when they think the machine is not functioning properly, or even how do they decide this might be happening?

(****) As they complete their study, and develop a communication plan for sharing their work with homeowners and others:

How do they represent their data: What statistical information do they include? What, if anything, do they represent in tabular form? How do they graphically represent their data, and why? How do they show their results on a map, or do they do this? Have they remembered to protect the privacy of the homeowner, and if so, how? What data do they include (all data, data with Health or Environmental Guidelines only, duplicate samples, statistical data as well as individual data, etc)? Have they considered what guidelines or regulations might be in place regarding metal levels in soil? How are they going to represent their data to individual homeowners? What do they need to consider? What are the limitations of their data, and the limitations of they interpretation? (as geoscientists, we cannot make health statements: we can present the data, but not make statements regarding implications for health, for example)

TEMPLATE FOR ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING: (Modified after: Davis, M., Developing and Using Cases to Teach Practical Ethics: Teaching Philosophy, Volume 20, 1997, 353-385).

What are the facts involved? What information do you need to assess each properly?

What are the various possible solutions or approaches to the issue at hand? At this point, record all possibilities before making a decision, and note the values involved in each case.

What are possible outcomes or consequences of each solution or approach?

What is the likely or possible impact of each solution - On individuals? On communities? On organizations? On non-humans? On the environment?

Evaluate each of the potential solutions in terms of outcomes, likely impact, and values (respected or violate) by considering the following questions: (Note that these questions can serve as guidelines for your reasoning towards making an ethically wise decision)

a. HARM - Does this option do less harm than any alternative? (does it do no more harm than any alternative)?

b. PUBLICITY – Would I / we want our choice published in a newspaper, or reported on TV or radio? Or posted on Facebook/ Twitter? Or shared with future employers?

c. DEFENSIBILITY – Can I defend this choice to a committee of my peers? My supervisors? My family? My best friends? Scientists I respect?

d. NOT IN MY BACK YARD - Would I still be okay with this choice if I was the person who was most adversely affected by the overall outcome?

e. COULD I LIVE WITH MY DECISION– what would I become if I made this choice often, and if it is not an ethical decision, even if I were to get away with it, would I be okay with it?

f. PROFESSIONAL – what might the Geoscientist professional group say of this action?

g. COLLEAGUE – what might my peers say when I tell them about this potential action?

h. ORGANIZATION – what might the (university) ethics office say about this?

Reflect on the decision, following taking the action - A final step involves reviewing the decision after it has been in place – any changes? What, if anything, might you do differently next time?

In the broader context: Is there a need for change in the organization? In the larger society?


There are a number of approaches to assessment for this activity:

  1. Whole class debriefing allows for informal assessment of students' understanding of the issues involved, the decision-making process, and serve to allow immediate feedback to the students on their thinking and on the ethical decision-making process.
  2. Students write a reflection on the process. For example, you may ask one or more of the following: What did they find difficult? What new way of approaching things did they learn? What might they do differently in the future? What new questions did this raise for them?
  3. Students write a short case study, and summarize the key ethical issues involved
  4. Students can be given a different case study, and asked to identify key ethical issues, take one of these, and address it, using the ethical decision-making process outlined above.

Rather than assess the students on their personal values, it is important to assess them on the process, completeness and rationality of their decision-making, and to let them know this is how they will be assessed.

References and Resources

Davis, M., 1997. Developing and Using Cases to Teach Practical Ethics. Teaching Philosophy, Volume 20, 353-385.