Themes and Strategies -- Introductory Courses

This web page is based on a document produced by Joy Branlund, John Geissman, Cathy Pappas-Maenz, Mike Phillips, & Daniel Vallero, David Mogk at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop.

Jump down to: Teaching Tips | Assessment | Resources

Instruction in GeoEthics can and should start at the introductory level, and this page provides guidance on themes, topics, and pedagogical strategies that can be employed at the entry level in the geoscience curriculum.

Intro-level GeoEthics Themes

  • Geoethics adopts principles of sound science and employs ethics of scientific research (telling the truth, understanding scientific uncertainty, etc.).
  • Geoethics provides a reference and guidelines for behavior in addressing concrete problems of human life by trying to find socio-economic solutions compatible with a respect for the environment and the protection of Nature and land.
  • Geoethics reflects the social role played by Geoscientists and their responsibilities highlighting the ethical, cultural and economic repercussions that their behavioral choices may have on society.
  • Geoethics encourages a critical analysis of the use and management of geo-resources.
  • Geoethics deals with problems related to the risk management and the mitigation of geohazards.

Teaching Tips

Some general things that instructors should consider:

  • Plan to cover ethical content implicitly (without formally framing the content as "ethics") and/or explicitly.
    • Implicit teaching is embedded throughout and is less likely to trigger students answering ethical questions based on what they think the teacher (or society) prefers.
    • Explicit teaching fosters metacognition and can lead to a greater self-awareness of how ethical decisions are constructed.
  • Allow for open-ended discussion. Teaching ethics allows students to ask questions, and often the questions have no right or wrong answers.

Getting Started: Background knowledge & interest survey

Engage students in topics they care about and learn where sticking points may lie by surveying their background knowledge and interests. Ask questions such as:

  • Why are you taking this class?
  • What is your science background?
  • What topics would you like to see emphasized in this class?
  • Would you be interested in learning about relations between the geosciences and societal issues? Why or why not?

Topics for Exploration

Geoethics can be incorporated in many introductory geoscience courses. Ethical content can easily be incorporated with the following topics:

  • Natural Hazards (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, coastal hazards, flooding, severe weather, sinkholes, landslides)
  • Natural Resources (metals, nonmetallic mineral and rock resources, carbon-based energy sources and their extraction, alternative energy sources, biomass & water)
  • Climate Change (greenhouse dynamics, changes to atmospheric chemistry and Earth's albedo)
  • Human-Induced Hazards (dam failure, human-induced subsidence, land subsidence, pipeline failure)
  • Medical Geology (airborne, waterborne and biogenic hazards) (e.g. Geology and Human Health, from On the Cutting Edge)
  • Academic & Professional Integrity

Questions for Discussion

Engaging in discussion and asking ethical questions requires students to think critically. Stimulate this critical thinking with Geoethics forums, or ask guiding questions, such as:
  • Is it OK to...? (e.g., dam a river? pollute a river?build a levee? open a new open-pit mine? transport freshwater long distances?)
  • What will happen if...?(e. g., sea level rises a river? drought continues to affect the Southwest U.S.? the Ogallala Aquifer is exhausted? Yellowstone erupts?)
  • Who will be affected if... and how? (e. g., if we don't mine copper in the U. S.? we exhaust our domestic supply of oil? a large earthquake happens on the New Madrid fault zone?)
  • Can/should someone own ...? (e. g., a river? a mountain range? a beach? a lake? a rock?)
  • What are reasons why we should or should not ...? (e. g. use iron-fertilization of the ocean to address climate change?, offer professional opinions to the public?)


Student outcomes, which can be developed into a rubric, can be applied to class activities, assignments, case studies, etc. An example rubric could include the following pieces:

[By the end of this activity/project/course,] students can:

    1. Identify the ethical issues
    2. Apply a logical analytical process to how knowledge is organized and used.
    3. Apply a critical thought process to ethical issues.
    4. Analyze the ethical dilemma using appropriate principles.
    5. Explain the major ideas, values, and social implication of ethical issues.
    6. Discuss/debate the ethical issues in an appropriate manner.



Teaching resources