Reporting Data


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:

Chemistry classes.

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 class.

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.

Lesson plan:

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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