A revised version of an individual lesson plan developed by
Karen M. Zopf, Oceanside High School, Oceanside, Long Island, NY
Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended:
Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson:
Group discussion of a fictional case study involving environmental concerns.
Each group submits a short paper and reports its recommendations to the
Category that Best Describes this Lesson:
Behavior of scientists
Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson:
Responsibilities of scientists in determining and communicating risks to public health and safety; honesty in reporting data; role of scientists in the framing of public policy.
Importance of honesty, especially in research that has a direct impact
on human health and welfare.
The teacher divides the class into small groups and distributes the
following hypothetical scenario to students. Each group is instructed to
submit a short paper on their recommendations, with supporting rationale,
and to be prepared to report their views to the rest of the class.
Mark Sidwell is working his way through college. A chemistry major,
he has a summer job monitoring pollution for a chemical company located
on Bedell Creek. (Bedell Creek is adjacent to the high school and eventually
flows out to the ocean.) He is instructed to collect three 100 ml water
samples at certain locations at set times each day. To each sample he is
to add 5 ml of a chemical solution that reacts and changes its color in
response to the amount of toxic heavy metals in the water. He then checks
each sample with an instrument that detects color intensity and gives a
quantitative measure of the amount of pollutant in each sample. If heavy
metals are present, further analysis will be conducted to determine the
specific type of and quantity.
Mark's supervisor, Jerry Elrod, has made it very clear that he will
be very upset if any unfavorable results show up, pointing out to Mark
how costly it may be for the company and the community if the test results
show significant amounts of pollution. "Mark," he says, "if we get unfavorable
data, we're due for heavy fines; and we might even have to shut down the
company. That would be bad news for a couple hundred folks from the area
who work here-- and their families."
Mark finds that, after a week on the job, 98% of the tests he has run
are favorable, with no significant heavy metal pollution detected. However,
in 2% of the tests the change in color intensity seems to warrant further
analysis. On further analysis he finds that those two samples contain significant
quantities of cadmium and methylmercury ions, both of which are highly
toxic. When he shows this data to Jerry, he is instructed to omit the unfavorable
data in his report. "We don't have to worry about anything," Jerry explains,
"as long as 95% of the tests are negative. As far as I'm concerned, anything
under 5% is an unreliable indicator of a problem. 2% certainly isn't enough
to bother anyone about--just leave it out of the report."
Mark has one of the best paying summer jobs around, and he has no desire
to cause the company any problems. But he wonders if leaving out the unfavorable
data is appropriate. He mentions, in confidence, his concerns with you
and other members of your group, asking for your advice. What advice do
you give him?
In advising Mark, be sure to take into consideration the following questions:
This is a complicated case. In addition to the specific issues about
Mark Sidwell's circumstance, it raises basic questions about how standards
of acceptable risk are established. Even though students should not be
expected to know what those standards are (e.g., how much vinyl chloride
or benzene poses a danger and precisely how this can be determined from
data), it is important for them to begin to think about standards of acceptable
risk and how scientists might responsibly conduct and report studies of
risk in circumstances like the one described.
However, this case is also complicated by questions of authority. Mark
is a summer employee, accountable to his supervisor. To whom else is Mark
accountable? To what extent is he justified in simply doing what he is
told? If he has doubts about the appropriateness of what he has been instructed
to do, how might he best go about answering those doubts?
Finally, Mark has reasons for not wanting to "rock the boat." To what extent, if any, is it justifiable to allow himself to be influenced by the desire to keep his job? Students might be asked to compare Mark's reasons for agreeing to leave out data with their reasons for not reporting all the data they collect in their laboratory work. This can lead to a good discussion of the differences between those reasons that are justifications (reasons that can stand up to public scrutiny) and those that are, at best, excuses or rationalizations.
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