Initial Publication Date: June 9, 2014

How To Teach GeoEthics

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University and Monica Bruckner, SERC, Carleton College, based in part on material developed by participants at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics Across the Curriculum workshop.

The tenets of excellence in STEM education extend to instruction in GeoEthics:

  • Clear articulation of student learning goals
  • Engagement of students using active learning methods
  • Use of a variety of assessment methods that are well-aligned with the learning goals.

Teaching GeoEthics requires three stages: 1) awareness of the ethical dilemma or problem, 2) ethical decision-making, and 3) monitoring or modifying behaviors, including taking appropriate actions. The following module provides some guidance about how to engage students in all three of these important aspects.

We have compiled a number of online resources to help you design, teach and assess courses in the geosciences. Please refer to these resources as you develop your own courses and curricula in GeoEthics:

There are also two domains of learning, based on research in the cognitive and learning sciences, that are closely related to teaching GeoEthics:

  • The Affective Domain in the Classroom--from the On the Cutting Edge program; the affective domain includes the internal and external factors that affect a student's ability to learn: curiosity, fear, social barriers, and much more. This module includes practical advice on motivating students to learn, developing self-efficacy (students' belief that they CAN learn), and strategies for teaching controversial issues (e.g. evolution, climate change).
  • The Role of Metacognition in Learning--from the On the Cutting Edge program; metacognition is "thinking about thinking"; students must develop skills for self-monitoring of their learning that leads to self-regulation of their behaviors. With respect to GeoEthics, students must first be aware of the ethical dimensions of a given situation, and then have the tools to appropriately respond to the ethical situation.

General Advice on Teaching Ethics

When designing a lesson or activity, keep these two general guidelines in mind:

  1. Be aware of the different ways to introduce GeoEthics. Decide if you will cover ethical content implicitly (without formally framing the content as "ethics"), explicitly, or both. 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.
  2. Allow for open-ended discussion. Teaching GeoEthics allows students to ask questions, and often the questions have no right or wrong answers.

While it may seem intimidating, instructors can include GeoEthics without having formal ethical training. These pieces can serve as an outline to guide development and implementation of activities and assignments.

Guiding Questions for Exploring GeoEthics

  • Who is responsible for his/her actions? (moral agent)
  • Who/what can be acted upon in a way that may be right or wrong? (moral subject)
    • Does it have intrinsic value? (because it exists)
    • Does it have instrumental value? (is of use to someone or something)
    • Why does a thing have value?
  • What are the consequences of an action (as broadly as possible)?
    • Who is responsible?
    • Who is affected?
  • What is the value of the Earth and its physical and biological components?
  • What are students' personal ethics?
    • Explore the place and role of the individual and society in stewardship of the Earth.
  • Why is ethical science important?
    • In other words, why is it important to report their own results honestly. Likewise, the instructor should respect bad results, so long as they are honestly reported.
    • This is especially important in lab courses.
  • What are the different ethical approaches that exist?
    • Are there rules that apply to everyone all the time?
    • If we are acting to serve the greatest good for the greatest number...
      • how do we define the greatest good?
      • how do we determine the greatest number?
      • do we need to consider a length of time?

Questions that Can Be Used to Start and Guide Discussion

Asking ethical questions requires students to think critically. Such questions include:

  • 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? 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?)

Related Resource:

Instructional Strategies

  • Teach GeoEthics in contexts that are meaningful (real-world examples) -- these contexts can be based on events, places, and/or processes
  • First Day of Class -- from the Starting Point project; affords the opportunity to introduce ethical practices as an integral part of pre-professional training of students;
  • "Ethics in the Classroom", Online Ethics Center for Engineering 3/26/2010 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Sunday, June 08, 2014. -- Resources on Teaching Ethical Theory, Ethical Decision-Making Frameworks
  • "General Ethics Instruction Guides: Engineering & Science", Online Ethics Center for Engineering 3/26/2010 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Sunday, June 08, 2014
  • National Academy of Engineering Practical Guidance on Science and Engineering Ethics Education for Instructors and Administrators: Papers and Summary from a Workshop December 12, 2012
  • Introductory Topic Packets -- from Ethics Core, topics related to responsible conduct of research ready for use in classrooms.
  • Education: Embed social awareness in science curricula--Erin A. Cech, Nature Commentary, volume 505, issue 7484, posted 22 January 2014. "Separate ethics courses are not enough, argues Erin A. Cech. Understanding the public-welfare impacts of science and engineering is a core professional skill."
  • How to use Codes of Ethics in the Classroom
    • Buff, Cheryl L. and Virginia Yonkers. "Using Student Generated Codes of Conduct in the Classroom to Reinforce Business Ethics Education." Journal of Business Ethics 61:2 (October 2005) 101-110.
    • Carr, David. Professionalism and ethics in teaching. New York, NY : Routledge. 2000.
    • Luegenbiehl, Heinz C. "Codes of Ethics and the Moral Education of Engineers," Business and Professional Ethics Journal 2 (1983): 41-61.

Example Classroom Activities Using Active Learning Methods

"Embedded Ethics" or "Micro-Insertion"

  • Two Minute Challenges -- a compilation of ethics-based scenarios from Ethics Core.
  • Do the Right Thing -- short scenarios of ethical situations to be inserted into a variety of geoscience courses across the curriculum; submitted by David Mogk to the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop.

Interactive Lectures

Case Studies

Current Events and Topical Issues

Role Playing

In-Class Debates

Socratic Questioning

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Service Learning

Guides for Ethical Decision-Making

E-Mail Discussions or other Social Media

Journal Publications

  • Journal Publications -- (review of literature known to be fraudulent) from Resources for Research Ethics Education, UC San Diego

Students Engage Journalism

Using Video

Some Example Syllabi

Teaching Geoethics Across the Geoscience Curriculum: An Example from IUPUI

Submitted by Cam Macris, Department of Earth Sciences, IUPUI

Geo-Equity Modules (GEMs) 

Geo-Equity Modules (GEMs) are classroom activities centered around real-life case studies about environmental issues that negatively impact underrepresented and marginalized communities disproportionately. Each case study has intrinsic moral, ethical, and equity issues, which are presented on the GEMs website, along with the scientific context and stakeholder histories. GEMs were created by a group of undergraduate and graduate students as part of an internship in Summer 2021, working with faculty supervisors at IUPUI. The associated course activities include (1) a homework assignment based on content in one of the GEM case studies to be completed prior to class, (2) a guided group discussion and worksheet to be completed in class (50-75 minutes total), and (3) a post-class reflection meant to be completed after the in-class activity for homework. These activities are linked on the GEMs homepage (scroll to the bottom), and follow the ethical decision making framework of Davis (1999) and Taylor (2019).

So far three GEMs have been published including a local, national, and global environmental issue: (1) Lead Contamination in East Chicago, Indiana, (2) Uranium Mining and the Navajo Nation, and (3) Sea Ice and the Pangnirtung Inuit Tribe. These were created on a range of topics relevant for use across the Earth Sciences curriculum at IUPUI, and were implemented successfully in Fall 2021 and Spring 2022. The team at IUPUI plans to expand this collection in the future.

GEMs Home page:

GEMs team:

GEMS Modules:

GeoEthics Training Outside of Formal Classes

The Resources for Research Ethics Education website recommends the following approaches to teaching ethics in a variety of contexts:

  • One-on-one mentoring between faculty and students (although effective when done, may be done infrequently or not at all; other opportunities to introduce research ethics include:
  • Handouts and Guidelines
  • Regular meetings with advisees and research groups
  • Journal Clubs
  • Research lecture series that address ethical issues
  • Group discussions to generate policies
  • Recommended readings on ethics provided to students.

Mentoring of Students -- Lab Instruction

  • Mentoring--Resources for Research Ethics Education, UC San Diego
  • Advising and Mentoring On Being A Scientist (pages 4-7)
  • ENCOUR--Ethics Network for Course-Based Opportunities in Undergraduate Research, focuses on ethics/responsible conduct of research within CUREs. "ENCOUR aims to identify/develop effective ways for instructors to integrate ethics/RCR education in CUREs and other authentic research experiences by:

Assessing GeoEthics Instruction: Student learning outcomes and assessments

Developing New Instructional Materials in Ethics

Next generation instructional materials are needed to support training in the many dimensions of (geo)ethics.

  • Here is an example on The Ethics of Nanotechnology delivered via YouTube--developed by the Microelectronics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, for the NSF sponsored National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure program.