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Is it time to add a new step to the scientific method?

Is it time to add a new step to the traditional scientific method? The answer is a definite yes! Students are typically presented with a version of the scientific method wherever science is taught. Why? The scientific method is an approach to problem solving, a system we use to create new knowledge, and overall, a way of thinking. Yet, the way this framework is taught to students often misses a very important set of issues that professional scientists face: ethics.

Both in classrooms that I have observed and in science fair projects I have seen, students seem to have a very good grasp of planning experiments linking the manipulated and responding variables to the problem, hypothesis and data collection. Now, I would like to see inclusion of ethical considerations in the planning process. It could be inserted just before or just after the method/procedures. That way the student can demonstrate that ethics was part of the thought processes prior to carrying out the experiment. Even though this is probably more important for planning independent projects, all activities involve potential ethical considerations. This is especially true in projects that involve human or animal subjects.
Planning Experiments Chart
Why not teach students to consider ethics from the start, rather than having them try to justify their experiments after the fact. Youth Science Canada identifies projects involving humans as being either Low Risk or Significant Risk. They provide guidelines to distinguish between the two and make available a template to create a letter of informed consent for students to use for the significant risk projects. Since many students like to do experiments that involve surveys, tests, or behavioural observations that can involve tasting or ingestion of food, teachers can make this an opportunity to discuss the ethics of human research in context. 

In Alberta, ethics is taught as a separate component in Grade 8.

“The study of the acceptable standards of a society is a component of schooling that is essential in helping students to become contributing, responsible and ethically mature persons. Humans, by their very nature, are moral beings.” (1)

“The aim of the ethics course is to help students to become more thoughtful, to think of the interests of others, and to see the ethical implications in their daily lives.”

By including ethics in the scientific method, it integrates ethics into the daily lives and habits of students rather than isolating ethics in an episodic course.

Genome Alberta through GE3LS has shown leadership in bringing “Ethical, Economic, Environmental, Legal and Social” aspects into the context of genomic research and innovation by addressing questions that lie at the interface between science and society. It is time to bring ethical concerns into the daily language of the science curriculum by including it as a step in the modern scientific method.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Is it time to add a new step to the scientific method?

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