Upper Schoolers Grapple with Science and Ethics

Science classes at Calhoun go beyond mastery of a subject; they prepare students to understand the complex role science plays in our society. In both Bioethics and The Uses and Misuses of Scientific Evidence in Policy Making, electives offered as part of the Upper School curriculum, students are pushed to analyze the role science plays in our world and the impact of scientific innovation has on our lives. Focusing on credibility and research, students gain the tools to be discerning and informed future leaders.


In the course of the mod, students in the Uses and Misuses class explore a number of instances in history when scientific innovation has influenced society— for better or for worse.  As they discover the impact of these events, they begin to research similar cases for their own papers and presentations. Among the topics they’ve chosen have been the implications of tobacco companies’ withholding information on the dangers of cigarette smoking; the use of toxic chemical Agent Orange during the Vietnam War; and the downfall of the health-technology company Theranos. Through this project work, students strengthen their skills as researchers and deepen their understanding of the practices and procedures of the scientific community. They learn how to identify valid scientific studies and dependable sources. They read peer-reviewed scientific journals and discuss their importance as a publishing standard in the scientific community. Understanding these procedures and standards, teacher John Roeder says, is key to being informed as both a citizen and a scientist. “I want them to be savvy so that they can evaluate what a scientist is claiming or what a science denier is claiming,” he explains.

Research also plays an important role in Bioethics, in which Upper Schoolers examine the ethical and moral questions that arise as science continues to rapidly advance. Students facilitate discussion with their peers, and prepare by gathering credible information from trusted sources. Teacher Hadda Ait Oukdim-Conte stresses the importance of proper research, saying, “[You have to know] where to start, what to filter out, and figure out whether there is already bias present in that source.” As students debate the ethics of weighty topics like genetic editing and organ transplants, they are pushed to support their stance with data, building the skills necessary to formulate a position. “My goal is for them to learn to think deeply before presenting an opinion,” says Hadda, who adds that self-reflection is part of the challenge of this course. Students examine their own biases and stretch themselves to be open to differing opinions—ultimately learning to support their arguments with science. As students grapple with these larger questions, they see how science has changed and will continue to change our world. Through their work, they begin to understand the responsibility they have to be part of the conversation—as both future decision-makers and future scientists.

Indeed, the ability to wrestle with the impact of science on our lives will not end with the mod; it will carry on throughout these students’ lives. Their generation will ultimately be tasked with addressing complex, urgent issues such as climate change, and these academic experiences are preparing students to play their part in shaping society. “It’s going to be their world,” says John – and these students are equipped to take it on.