Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 1649–1667 | Cite as

Navigating Bioethical Waters: Two Pilot Projects in Problem-Based Learning for Future Bioscience and Biotechnology Professionals

  • Roberta M. BerryEmail author
  • Aaron D. Levine
  • Robert Kirkman
  • Laura Palucki Blake
  • Matthew Drake
Original Paper


We believe that the professional responsibility of bioscience and biotechnology professionals includes a social responsibility to contribute to the resolution of ethically fraught policy problems generated by their work. It follows that educators have a professional responsibility to prepare future professionals to discharge this responsibility. This essay discusses two pilot projects in ethics pedagogy focused on particularly challenging policy problems, which we call “fractious problems”. The projects aimed to advance future professionals’ acquisition of “fractious problem navigational” skills, a set of skills designed to enable broad and deep understanding of fractious problems and the design of good policy resolutions for them. A secondary objective was to enhance future professionals’ motivation to apply these skills to help their communities resolve these problems. The projects employed “problem based learning” courses to advance these learning objectives. A new assessment instrument, “Skills for Science/Engineering Ethics Test” (SkillSET), was designed and administered to measure the success of the courses in doing so. This essay first discusses the rationale for the pilot projects, and then describes the design of the pilot courses and presents the results of our assessment using SkillSET in the first pilot project and the revised SkillSET 2.0 in the second pilot project. The essay concludes with discussion of observations and results.


Fractious problems Navigational approach Ethics education Problem-based learning (PBL) Ethics assessment 



We acknowledge support in conducting these pilot projects and preparing this article from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Ethics Education in Science and Engineering (EESE) grant, NSF EESE Award ID 0832912 (PI: R.M.B.) and additional support in preparing the article from a NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant, NSF DRL Award ID 1150114 (PI: A.D.L.). We acknowledge additional support for the second pilot project from the School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations set forth in this article are those of the co-authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of these funders. We acknowledge the efforts of the NSF EESE Research Team for the first pilot project: John D. Banja, Gillian Hue Beckford, Roberta M. Berry, Laura Palucki Blake, Jason Borenstein, Robert J. Butera, Lara Denis, Matthew Drake, Martha L. Elks, Kathy Kinlaw, Robert J. Kirkman, Michelle Lampl, Aaron D. Levine, Paul A. Lombardo, Patricia Marstellar, Robert M. Nerem, Wendy C. Newstetter, Douglas F. Paulsen, Edward L. Queen II, Mark Risjord, Charity Scott, Lisa A. Tedesco, Keith D. Wilkinson, Leslie E. Wolf. We thank Wendy C. Newstetter, a member of the NSF EESE Research Team, in particular, for her assistance in operationalizing the “navigational approach” in the form of the “fractious problem navigational” (FPN) skills. We also extend thanks to the following members of the NSF EESE research team for their efforts in scoring the results of the first pilot project: Roberta M. Berry, Laura Palucki Blake, Jason Borenstein, Robert J. Butera, Kathy Kinlaw, Robert J. Kirkman, Aaron D. Levine, Wendy C. Newstetter, Edward L. Queen II, Leslie E. Wolf. We thank Ethan Butler for his extensive and invaluable research assistance in support of the work reported here for both pilot projects. We also thank both of the following for their very helpful efforts as graduate research assistants for the NSF EESE pilot project: Alexander M. Smith, William Edward Staley, Jr. We acknowledge the efforts of the Science, Technology, and Human Values Research Team for the second pilot project: Roberta M. Berry, Laura Palucki Blake, Ruchir N. Karmali, Sharon E. Norman, Jason L. Wang. We extend thanks to the following for their efforts in scoring the results of the second pilot project: Caroline H. Appleton, Kathryn J. Kline, Stephanie C. Noble, Carter M. Parker. We also thank the following for their efforts in facilitating the Science, Technology, and Human Values PBL teams: Christopher Y. Bellew, Bekim Haliti, Susan Kibler, Hannah T. Santoro, Claire E. Woodring.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

11948_2015_9725_MOESM1_ESM.docx (161 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 161 kb)
11948_2015_9725_MOESM2_ESM.docx (153 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 153 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roberta M. Berry
    • 1
    Email author
  • Aaron D. Levine
    • 2
  • Robert Kirkman
    • 2
  • Laura Palucki Blake
    • 3
  • Matthew Drake
    • 4
  1. 1.Georgia Tech Honors ProgramGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.School of Public PolicyGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA
  3. 3.Institutional Research and Effectiveness, Office of Institutional ResearchHarvey Mudd CollegeClaremontUSA
  4. 4.Palumbo Donahue School of BusinessDuquesne UniversityPittsburghUSA

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