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Bioethics Forums- A Critical Thinking Training Ground

Videodiscovery's Bioethics Forums is a multimedia program for laserdisc or CD-ROM that provides students with hypothetical case studies for the practice of bioethical decision making. A combination of dramatized video, text articles, photos, and graphics creates a focused information-base that students use to explore the stakeholders, values, alternatives, and tradeoffs to various problems. The focus of the program is to have students apply their science knowledge, experience many points of view, and come to better understand why people behave the way they do.

Background on Bioethics Forums

Bioethics Forums was modeled after Videodiscovery's Science Technology Society Forums (1993), a middle school laserdisc program in which students prepare position presentations for a lively classroom debate. Students research their assigned point of view as small groups, and then use visual aids from the videodisc as part of their presentation. STS Forums incites classroom discussions and debate in using the adversarial format. In 1994 Videodiscovery received NSF funds to produce a new high school curriculum for Genetics. The NSF wanted students to explore the bioethical and social aspects of new genetic advances. The resulting laserdisc and CD-ROM Genetics: Fundamentals and Frontiers provides a state-of-the-art learning tool for the study of genetics. It's companion product, Bioethics Forums, provides motivating scenarios to inspire biology learning and to assess whether students are able to apply their science knowledge in real life situations. While the goal for STS Forums was to persuade, the goal for Bioethics Forums is to think and understand.

Bioethics Forums is adapted from the decision making model from the Hastings Foundation curriculum New Choices New Responsibilities and from the NSF funded decision-making curriculum Decision Research. Students complete a bioethical analysis worksheet as they research and view multimedia resources. The steps include; 1. Identify the decision and the decision maker, 2. Identify the stakeholders, their values, and priorities 3. Identify the alternatives and the tradeoffs and, 4. Propose a solution that is the most acceptable and explain it to the stakeholders. This model leads students from general scientific research and problem solving skills to higher level thinking in which they must deal with the real world of people, their personal agendas and values. Students travel from the black and white world of scientific fact to the gray area where peoples desires conflict within themselves and with others.

Each fictional episode provides 5 to 7 interviews with characters who have a some kind of message related to the story. Students must distinguish between those characters with a real stake in the decision, those with opinions but no immediate stake and those who are simply bringing neutral information to the story. The episode topics such as fetal alcohol syndrome, euthanasia, and preserving biodiversity are all close to true events. The vehicle of fiction allows us to freeze the issue in time and provide much fuller access to the possible points of view. The dramatized segments with professional actors are intended to elicit an emotional response from students. Once students buy into the drama, they are eager to participate in discussion and suddenly see an immediate need for the abstract science that they have been studying.

The fictional supporting articles are also closely based on real sources and reflect the real information sources that people use. Students compare the "facts" presented in a daily newspaper, a scientific journal, or a trashy tabloid. Critical thinkers must always question the source of information and realize that people can interpret facts in different ways depending on their values and biases.

As students delve deeper into the story it becomes an onion with layer after layer of facts, inferences, and viewpoints. The decision making model provides a scaffolding for sorting out the information provided. We do not encourage students to make up their own minds on these issues. The key to negotiation is to appreciate the rightness of each person from each perspective. A good negotiator is able to distinguish those opinions that are held strongly from those which are more open for compromise. Sometimes the most important belief of a stakeholder is only mildly affected by the decision at hand and the character, and some compromise is possible.

Building a course around the theme of bioethical decision making has the ability to enfranchise many students who are uninterested in abstract science. We often hear about students who usually do not participate suddenly having a lot to say during a Bioethics Forums discussion. Perhaps these discussions of human values and personal situations tap into other kinds of intelligence such as moral reasoning. These students can participate on an equal footing and begin to build self confidence and a desire to look deeper into the science behind these issues. Since each episode has its own scientific focus, it is possible to integrate the Bioethics Forums episodes across a year of high school biology. Students practice applying the decision making model over and over again as the year progresses thereby building real critical thinking skills.

For more information about Bioethics Forums and other critical thinking and problem solving programs from Videodiscovery, visit the Videodiscovery Web site.

About the Author

Bibliography and additional Resources

Bioethics Web Sources

Bioethics Worksheet

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Discussion Questions

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