Geoethics Forums

Shaun Taylor, University of Washington / Educurious


Geoethics Forums is a format for a classroom discussion and creative resolution of an ethical issue. Students research a particular dilemma, identify stakeholders, and then consider possible solutions and tradeoffs working towards the most acceptable path.


High school Earth Science – undergrad non majors geoscience

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students would benefit by knowing about mineral resource mining, refining and lifecycle issues.

How the activity is situated in the course
The activity could be used as course introduction to set the stage for research and discovery of course content. It could also be used for a culminating activity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
From Next Generation Science Standards
  • HS-ESS3-1. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.
  • HS-ESS3-2. Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.*
  • HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.*

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Synthesis, application, seeing multiple points of view

Other skills goals for this activity
Collaboration in groups, research, oral presentation, role playing

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Students explore tradeoffs around an issue.

Description and Teaching Materials

Download the full description of Geoethics Forums (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 48kB May10 14).

Geoethics Basics

Ethical decision making sets up a dilemma in which you explore the pros and cons of a situation from a variety of perspectives. There is no "right" or "wrong" answer. The emphasis here is on the process of arriving at an acceptable solution in which all stakeholders had an opportunity to have input.

The ambiguities of moral and ethical viewpoints challenge critical thinking abilities and promote the development of problem-solving strategies. After you understand the problem at an emotional level, you will want to discover the facts, better understand the problem, and come up with a reasonable solution. These higher-order thinking skills are a lifelong learning asset.

Science topics involve personal and societal values and are open to subjective interpretation. With the complex issues currently confronting biology, purely empirical or value-free science is difficult. Perceptions are altered by values. For example do we value endangered species less if we are directly affected by conservation efforts or costs? Are we responsible for environmental and social effects in other countries when we are merely customers for their products or services?

Geoethical decisions often come down to a question of values and understanding tradeoffs. Those making the decisions attempt to honor the values and interests of different stakeholders. In order to make ethical decisions, you need to understand the difference between fact, opinion, and values; and you need to develop an ability to make rational decisions, while recognizing the role of subjective interpretation. A Geoethics Forum is not about making up your mind on an issue; rather, it is about exploring other points of view and perspectives.

A geoethics discussion can begin with any current event from the newspaper. There is no shortage of news stories about emerging environmental problem in the earth sciences. It's the personal element, however, that makes a geoethics analysis truly gripping. A geoethical discussion can last a single period or stretch over several weeks. Case studies are helpful to show how geoethical decisions evolve in the real world, how stakeholders are involved, and how science information affects (and is affected by) personal values.

Your teacher functions best as a facilitator. The teacher helps to provide case histories, materials, and access to information to help with your problem solving process. You must gather information, analyze and classify complex viewpoints, develop realistic alternatives, and then express your findings in a cogent, organized fashion. The internet is wealth of information, but you do have to be careful about the quality and bias of sources. Many different information sources can be used, such as interviews, literature searches, Internet research, or even laboratory and hands-on experiments.

A Geoethical Decision Making Model:

Though every situation is different, it is useful to have an ethical decision model to use. You may want to print out the Geoethical Analysis Student Worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB May10 14) which parallels the process described below:
  1. Identify the context. What is the decision? Who must make this decision? What information is available to the decision maker?
  2. Identify stakeholders. Who will be affected by this decision? What values does each of these stakeholders have? What are their immediate priorities? What are their rights and responsibilities? You may want to assign individuals or groups a single stakeholder to analyze.
  3. Explore alternatives. What are some of the possible actions that could resolve the situation? How would each stakeholder be affected by each alternative? If there are tradeoffs which values are you favoring over others? (See the list below)
  4. Recommend a solution. Create a presentation of a solution that would be persuasive to each of the stakeholders and the decision maker.


These principles or values are often involved in ethical analysi
  • Justice - People deserve equal access to minimum standards of health care and services.
  • Autonomy - An individual right may have to be balanced against the rights of others. People need to be fully informed to make good decisions.
  • Privacy - People have the right to keep personal information confidential.
  • Beneficence - Policies should be for the good of the community and the individuals.
  • Non-maleficence – Do no harm. For doctors this takes the form of the Hippocratic Oath, in which doctors promise to uphold high ethical standards and to not knowingly cause harm to a patient. Some people would want to consider future generations as stakeholders. Others might want to consider the rights of animals and protection of natural environments in decision-making.

Framing Principles

Geoethical discussion may include other principles which may also translate into values or serve as lens for considering potential outcomes. These are framed by Open the Future

  • Interconnectedness -- planetary systems do not exist in isolation, and changes made to one system will have implications for other systems.
  • Diversity -- on balance, a diverse ecosystem is more resilient and flexible, better able to adapt to natural changes.
  • Foresight -- consideration of effects of changes should embrace the planetary pace, not the human pace.
  • Integration -- as human societies are part of the Earth's systems, changes made should take into consideration effects on human communities, and the needs of human communities should not be discounted or dismissed when considering overall impacts.
  • Expansion of Options -- on balance, choices made should increase the number of options and opportunities for future generations, not reduce them.
  • Reversibility -- changes made to planetary systems should be done in a way that allows for reconsideration if unintended and unexpected consequences arise. –Jamais Cascio

See more at:

These are useful when thinking about other geoethical concerns such as sustainability, development, geodiversity and geoheritage, prudent consumption of mineral resources, appropriate measures for predictability and mitigation of natural hazards, geoscience communication, museology, etc.

How to conduct a Geoethics Forum

  1. Pick an issue that involves a significant new trend which may be driven by new scientific advances or technology. Find one which you believe there will likely be many stakeholders and varied motivations.
  2. Describe the decision that is being considered. This can be a retelling of a current, real-life news story; or it can be a hypothetical scenario that you make up as a way to frame the issue. It could also be a local community or personal issue although you may find that having an issue that is very close to home will evoke too much emotion and firmly-set opinions.
  3. Complete the Geoethical Analysis Student Worksheet. You can do this as a team on which members assume different roles, such as researcher, writer, and negotiator. You can also assume the roles of stakeholders so that each person looks at the problem from each perspective.
  4. Conduct the geoethical forum, which is a classroom discussion on the issue. Again, the whole group can present the full analysis, or stakeholders can present their perspective. Compare and evaluate the proposed solutions. Fill out the Alternative Actions Rubric to help keep track of the pros and cons of each action.
  5. Develop a compromise or new resolution that each stakeholder can live with.
  6. If you believe you have come to resolution or solution that no one else has invented you may want to share your analysis online through a sharing site such as Teen Ink.


Case Study Scenario

See an example of a Geoethics Forum - The Grey Side of Green.

Other Example Dilemmas

  • Strategic minerals. Many technologies today depend on unusual elements which are critical for the functioning of the consumer device we love, and for developing green technology. Unfortunately many of these elements are more plentiful and more easily extracted in other countries. In a global economy often the consumers of materials are far removed from the communities impacted by resource extraction. What responsibility do scientist have for creating the demand for new materials and enabling their discovery, extraction and processing ? What responsibilities do consumers have in being informed and precise in their purchases.

  • Fracking. New drilling technology has created a natural gas boom in the US. Natural gas is cleaner in both pollution from use and more efficient leading less carbon footprint compared to other fossil fuels. The low price has stimulated the economy and improved the standard of living for many. Yet the technology pollutes groundwater and increases consumption by depressing prices. How are the risks and benefits of natural gas to be evaluated? Who should decide? What happens to stakeholders who are not direct decision makers in the process?

  • Ownership of paleontological treasures. Fossils are found on private and public lands. Fossils which are dug with permits on BLM land are carefully controlled and belong to the public. What happens when important find are made on private land? Where does the right of private property trump scientific and historical legacy.

  • Planetary Geoengineering. Early controversies arose over the practice of cloud seeding. Did rain in one place steal rain from another? Now with climate change looming larger schemes are proposed for placing shade reflectors in space, sowing the stratosphere with sulfur compounds, sequestering carbon, or fertilizing the seas. Who should control geoengineering efforts that affect an entire planet? How can the risks be understood?

Teaching Notes and Tips

The forum should not be a debate. The goal is to understand different positions and then seek a common ground resolution.


Students use a rubric to compare solutions. Teachers look at the geoethical worksheet that each student prepares.

References and Resources