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GeoEthics in the Context of Sustainability

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at the workshop, Teaching GeoEthics Across the Curriculum, held in June 2014. Find examples of case studies and activities for teaching about geoethics.

Jump down to: Why Teach GeoEthics | Pedagogic Guidance | Pedagogic Methods | Effective Teaching Strategies | Resources

Why Teach GeoEthics?

GeoEthics is a valuable, but often overlooked, topic that can be naturally integrated into the classroom through several themes that are already commonly taught at both introductory and advanced levels. Bringing an ethical dimension to material covered in science courses brings science into a broader context, including its sociological connections, and can instill in students a sense of environmental stewardship. Consideration of geoethics can lead to effective teaching tools that develop awareness, values and responsibility. Incorporating geoethics benefits students because it:

  • Promotes critical thinking and review, including how the Grand Challenges facing society tie in to environmental justice and stewardship towards the Earth and society. Thoughtful review instills the importance of honesty in reporting results, understanding scientific uncertainty, etc.
  • Guides the formation of responsible solutions to socio-economic problems, by providing a reference point and guidelines for ethical behavior in addressing real-world problems faced by society. GeoEthics informs the development of socio-economic solutions that promote respect for and protection of the environment.
  • Highlights environmental, social, and economic stewardship by reflecting the role and responsibilities of geoscientists towards the Earth and society. This includes the ethical, cultural and economic repercussions that human actions may have on society.
  • Fosters critical thinking and thoughtful resource management by encouraging a critical analysis of the use and management of Earth's many resources.
  • Provides a systems-thinking context for dealing with risks by addressing issues related to understanding risk and natural hazards, risk preparedness, management, and the mitigation of geohazards.
  • Encourages thoughtful communication of scientific findings to different audiences by fostering the proper and correct dissemination of the results of scientific studies and other information on risks. GeoEthics also aims to improve the relationships between the scientific community, the mass media, the public, businesses, politicians, and other stakeholders through mutual respect and effective communication among these different groups.
  • Establishes relevance for geoscience content knowledge and skills outside of the classroom. Tying geoscience content knowledge and skills into situations applicable to daily life makes this information more meaningful at a personal level.
  • Stimulates social awareness of nature and history by promoting social awareness about the value of the Earth's resources, including an appreciation for Earth's history and diversity.

Learn more about the importance of teaching GeoEthics across the curriculum

Pedagogic Guidance

Getting Started: Engaging students in GeoEthics

While it should not be daunting to include ethics in the classroom, incorporating ethics can be a loaded endeavor, requiring consideration of students' affective domain. This includes taking into account students' attitudes, motivations, communication styles, learning styles, and nonverbal communication. For more guidance, see this suite of web pages about Teaching Controversial Topics from the Affective Domain module.

Probing Student Interest

Many students find ethics engaging, but a few simple steps can go a long way to reveal topics students are most interested in learning about. For example, at the beginning of a course, explore students' pre-existing knowledge and where their interest lies by asking them a few 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?

This simple survey can uncover where important knowledge gaps lie, identifies barriers to learning about science in relation to social issues, and provides a list of 'hot topics' that are most likely to engage students.

Microethics vs Macroethics

Microethics deals with personal and professional ethics and can be tied to responsibilities at the personal and intra-professional level (e.g. an environmental consultant's ethical responsibility to providing their client with reliable data).

Macroethics deals with the ethics of a society or culture and can be tied to personal and professional responsibilities towards society (e.g. environmental consultants' responsibilities - as a profession - to ensure environmental stewardship in their professional conduct).

Definitions derived from (Herkert, 2004). A more in-depth explanation of micro and macroethics, in an engineering context, is available in this Engineering Ethics Blog post.

Understanding micro and macroethics and the interplays between them probes at the reasons behind our viewpoints and can help establish guidelines for ethical standards. Further, understanding the interplay can help shift thinking and behaviors by getting to the roots of why we think and act the way we do. For instance, taking action to reduce one's carbon footprint is tied to both microethics and macroethics – at a microethical level, our beliefs about the impact of humans on climate will influence our perception of responsibilities and stewardship and will guide us on whether or not to take actions such as driving and consuming less to lessen our footprint. At a macroethical level, our professional responsibilities to be stewards to the Earth and abide by the high ethical standards set by society will influence how we conduct research and report data.

Bringing this into the classroom, if our students do not hold a particular personal belief, they will be less open (and may be actively resistant) to taking personal action, as they do not see the need to do so (e.g. if they believe humans are affecting climate, they may take action; if not, they may not see a need to take action). From a macro to micro-level, if society places priority on consumerism rather than conservation (e.g. the 'need' to have the newest gadgets), this will also affect individuals' actions. Teaching Controversial Topics, from On the Cutting Edge provides more guidance on identifying factors that influence behaviors and strategies for overcoming barriers.


Pedagogic Methods

GeoEthics can be explored using a variety of pedagogic methods. Some example strategies include the following:See more strategies from
GeoEthics Across the Curriculum »

Direct instruction

Expanding student perspectives

Put students to the test

  • Short in-class ethical problems
  • Case studies (see examples)
  • Analysis of current events and topical issues
  • GeoEthics forums

Effective strategies for teaching about GeoEthics

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

  1. Be aware of the different ways to introduce ethics. 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 ethics 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:

  • 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 is 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?

Potential Discussion Starters

Asking ethical questions require 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?)


Sustainability Related Topics for Exploration

GeoEthics can be incorporated in many courses, both at the introductory and advanced level. Ethical content can easily be incorporated with the following topics:See example themes
and strategies for integrating
GeoEthics across the curriculum »

  • Natural Hazards (e.g. preparedness for and mitigation of detrimental consequences for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, coastal hazards, flooding, severe weather, sinkholes, landslides)
  • Human-Induced Hazards (response to events such as dam failure, human-induced subsidence, land subsidence, pipeline failure)
  • Natural Resources (e.g. discussion of access to clean water, food security, rock and mineral resources, energy sources and their extraction, alternative energy sources)See example Intro-level
    themes and strategies »
  • Climate Change (e.g. explore the many facets of topics such as sea level rise, carbon emissions, increased incidence of extreme weather events)
  • Health (e.g. investigation and controlling airborne, waterborne and biogenic hazards; environmental justice issues)

Assessing Student Understanding of GeoEthics

Assessment of a relatively abstract and multi-dimensional topic such as ethics can be complicated. However, student outcomes can be developed into a rubric and be applied to class activities, assignments, case studies, etc. For example, students can be assessed with a rubric covering these measurable categories:

A student 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.

Learn more about assessment strategies, including scoring rubrics from this Assessment module, part of the Pedagogy in Action project.

Additional Resources

Check out example case studies and activities contributed by participants at the 2014 GeoEthics Across the Curriculum workshop. These include:

Further reading and resources:



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