Learning Through Research
Erin_SteagallStudents sink their roots in the culture and ethics of science and engineering through undergraduate research

In the end, the student learns about the community of scientists and the culture of the discipline. Science isn't done in a vacuum. Encouraging the student to talk to other technical staff and students, graduate students, post docs, professors, and others, will help to develop their sense of community and ability to share ideas. Although variations may exist among different fields, the common threads of scientific inquiry, engineering design, ethical reporting, and thoughtful analysis of the impact of the science on society, should come out of any successful research experience. Students should develop a sense of what a science or engineering career will entail. If they do not continue in science, they should have learned to appreciate the nature of how scientific decisions are made so that they can better assess scientific risks and advances.


This research experience will be many students' first exposure to the daily operation of scientific inquiry, and questions of ethics will most certainly arise. They will be familiar with the obvious: fabrication of data or stealing from the laboratory, but more subtle issues should be addressed. How will authorship of papers be handled? Who owns the research? Can a student take the data from the laboratory at the end of the summer? Is data that was published with an interpretation that was later determined to be incorrect unethical? 


Often students believe that science is the search for the truth, and anything written or discovered in the past is the "truth." While we can hope that the knowledge we obtain by conducting science leads to a true understanding of what we are studying, students must realize that science is an ongoing process, and we interpret data based on our past knowledge and the tools we have at hand. One very important lesson for students is that science evolves as our tools and understanding evolve. Past research is useful; it guides our current understanding. If we learn something new, the past work is not necessarily "wrong" or badly done. It is a reflection of the understanding and instrumentation at the time. Past results are not necessarily the final word. Our understanding of the world is ongoing. 


The best way to establish ethical maturity is to educate by example and to bring up current topics of ethical ambiguity. Talk to your student or get a group together and get them to talk about the issues. Having this discussion in a small group environment with the guidance of one or more mentors is a very effective and non-threatening way to get students to think about the ethical practice of science.