Ethics Education

Team: Effy Vayena (D-HEST), Manu Kapur (D-GESS), Timothy Roscoe (D-INFK), Ernst Hafen (D-BIOL), Felix Gille (D-HEST), Joanna Sleigh (D-HEST), Aline Nardo (D-GESS)

This collaboration between the ETH’s Chair of Learning Sciences and the ETH’s Chair of Bioethics has two objectives. First, we seek to improve ethics education at ETH through the development of innovative and domain-adequate educational experiences, activities and technologies. In particular, we aim to explore the affordances of game- and play-based educational activities in the domain of ethics education. Building upon these practical interventions, secondly, we aim to make a significant contribution to the research of the teaching and learning of ethics that will be applicable and relevant in- and outside of ETH. To that end we will establish an extensive research program aimed at the development and testing of much-needed design principles for ethics education and the consequent evidence-based creation of an educational ethics game. Two overarching questions guide the design of this project:

1) How is the teaching and learning of ethics different/comparable to other domains? Over the course of this project we will be testing a variety of educational designs that are well established in other subject domains in the context of different ethics education courses and activities. 

2) How can ethics education in the higher education STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) disciplines be made more impactful? Therein, we are particularly interested in educational designs that foster the transferability of what is learned in the course to other courses and the student’s professional practice and research activity upon graduation. In particular, we aim to explore and test the affordances of state of the art educational technologies and gamification elements.

Future ETH-graduates will face highly complex moral challenges in their professional lives, some of which with profound societal impact. Knowing the rules of Good Scientific Practice (GSP) and regulations of professional ethics is not sufficient to equip future ETH-graduates for the intricate ethical issues they will encounter. Students need to learn how to reflect upon practical ethical issues based on a complex integration of personal attitudes and values, ethical concepts and theories, and professional and institutional codes of conduct. The factors within that decision-making process are complex, and go beyond a rational endeavor, including ethical sensitivity, awareness, attitudes and judgement, as well as the development of ethical behavior, and cultural competence. Individuals also have to be able to recognize their position, power and responsibility, and take into account different actors’ interests, perspectives and vulnerabilities. We advocate for an emancipatory approach to the teaching of ethics, that focuses on the ethical virtues of individuals and their competencies to bring their ethical judgement to bear in collaborative contexts as well as in balancing different stakeholder’s interests.

Compared to other domains that are mostly limited to conceptual change, the teaching and learning of ethics is pedagogically challenging. While it stands uncontested that ethics education pedagogically involves ‘something different’ than other domains in terms of types of knowledge, competencies and literacies, there has not yet been developed a consistent theoretical framework and empirical research programs testing educational methods for adequately cultivating impactful ethics education. The aspiration of this research, thus, is to think of ethics education not merely in terms of innovating the delivery of course content, but rather in terms of providing transformative educational experiences that reach beyond the course. Consequently, we measure the success of educational innovations in ethics education not primarily in terms of behavior changes or level of performance during and immediately after the course – although these factors will be part of our research – but rather in terms of the quality of educational experience they enable.

This project consists of a set of sub-studies contributing to the building of empirical evidence and theory on the teaching of ethics in the higher education STEM subjects. In the first phase (2020-2021) of the project we will conduct exploratory and design-based research in two settings: the undergraduate medical ethics course, and the yet to be developed research ethics course for PhD-students across the university. In the second phase (2021-?) we aim experimentally test the impact of some of the educational designs developed and evaluated in phase 1 and derive and disseminate a catalogue of design-principles for HE STEM ethics education. Furthermore, based on the evidence-based principles we developed, we aim to seek further collaboration with games developers to create a novel, state of the art ethics game.

On a micro level, the findings from this research will help improve both existing and future ethics courses at the ETH Zurich. On macro level, given that ethics and research integrity are foundational measures of scientific quality, academic reputation and public trust, the potential impact of this project is significant and far-reaching. The project will moreover synergize with two other proposed projects on Medical and Life Science Education, so as to calibrate its strategies and techniques to domain-specific educational settings. Intersections with the professorship of Bioethics will further ensure the development of an ethical toolbox that directly translates into ETH’s core learning strategy. Finally, the research conducted within this project will offer a set of transferable skills and normative know-how that can enrich the learning process across several disciplines.

Project team

Aline Nardo

Eugeniya Kareva

Philipp Kuhn

Henning Metzmacher

Joanna Sleigh

Effy Vayena

Timothy Roscoe

Ernst Hafen

Manu Kapur


Felix Gille