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Ethics in the Science Classroom: An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers



Author(s) Theodore Goldfarb Michael Pritchard

Author(s):  Michael S. Pritchard, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University & Theodore Goldfarb, Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook

NOTE: This contribution appeared as a featured resource in the online and printed issues of ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators Vol. 8 no.3, published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC.

Author(s):  Michael S. Pritchard, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University & Theodore Goldfarb, Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook

NOTE: This contribution appeared as a featured resource in the online and printed issues of ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators Vol. 8 no.3, published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC.

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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC
Volume 8
Issue 3
Year 1999
Publisher provided Keywords Instructional Methods Pedagogical Materials SCIENCE
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English

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Table of Contents

Lesson 2, Student and Teacher Behaviors in Science

Kenneth Abbott, and William Leacock, W.C. Mepham High School, Bellmore 
Heidi Gross, Oyster Bay High School, Oyster Bay.

Overview of Lesson

Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended
Intended for use at the beginning of the year in any science classroom.The teachers who developed this lesson teach physics and earth science and have described incidents that have occurred in their courses. Teachers of other disciplines can easily modify the cases so that they will be more familiar to their own students.
Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson
Students working in cooperative learning groups respond to cases involving ethical choices by students and teachers in science classrooms. The teacher directs a classroom discussion of the conclusions reached by the groups. Students create and submit additional cases and questions for use throughout the school year.
Categories that Best Describe this Lesson
Behavior of students and honesty
Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson
The cases presented raise questions about the ethics of sharing test and laboratory results, of manipulating data, of receiving credit for work done by others, of a teacher adjusting a student's grade and of a student taking action to prevent another student from cheating. The same format can be used to raise questions about other real life ethical issues encountered by science students and teachers.

Lesson Plan

The social and academic pressures experienced by science students and teachers can sometimes induce them to engage in questionable behavior. Such pressures are frequently the result of conflicts between the performance expectations and the ethical expectations placed on the individuals by the school, the community and society. The activities in this lesson provide an opportunity to examine and discuss these types of conflicts. The students will benefit from being given the chance to consider their own actions prior to being confronted with similar ethical choices. Students will be asked to consider nine case studies based on actual situations that have occurred in a science class setting. Questions are provided with each scenario to stimulate and initiate discussion. The lesson requires two normal length class periods.

Divide the class into six groups of 3-5 students. Assign one member in each group to each of the following roles:

  • Leader/Taskmaster - responsible for keeping the group on task. Obtains the material for the group and moderates discussions.
  • Reader - reads the case to the group and responds to factual questions about them.
  • Scribe - records the groups responses during the discussions of each case.
  • Presenter - describes and explains the groups conclusions to the other groups and to the class.

Group the case studies into three sets of three and assign each set to two of the groups. Allow twenty-five minutes for the groups to read, discuss and record their responses to their three assigned case studies. During the remainder of the first class period the two groups that have been assigned the same set of case studies get together to exchange views and begin preparing a presentation for the class. At the beginning of the second period the pairs of groups continue their preparation for the class presentation. The two presenters from the original groups agree on how they will divide the presentation. The presenters describe and explain the points of agreement and any conflicting points of view that have emerged from the discussions. These conclusions are then discussed by the class. The teacher should intervene only to raise ethical choices or issues not considered in the presentations or discussion. The students are given a homework assignment requiring each of them to create and submit an ethical case study - either imagined or based on experience - along with discussion questions. After reviewing and giving the student authors a chance to improve their creations, the teacher should select the best of the student cases for brief discussions at the beginning of class periods during the school year.

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Case # 1

Rachel has a crush on Don, who is a popular student and star of the school basketball team. Both Rachel and Don have the same physics teacher. Rachel is in Mr. Link's third period class and Don is in his sixth period class. Rachel works hard and is doing very well in physics. Don is not very interested in science, does little work, and is barely passing. Rachel and Don meet each other in the hall every day between fourth and fifth periods. Today there is a test in Mr. Link's class and Don did not study because he was very tired after basketball practice yesterday. Don asks Rachel to give him the test answers. She knows that if he doesn't pass the test he may fail the course.

  1. What are Rachel's and Don's options?
  2. If you were Rachel, what would you do? Why?
  3. If you were Rachel's friend, would you recommend that she should do what you would do?

Case # 2

John is doing a research study for his earth science class. The object is to measure and make a plot of the altitude of the sun at noon over a four-month period. He collects data every third day. At the end of the four months John has six missing data points because cloudy weather on those days prevented him from making the necessary measurements. He decides to estimate the correct data points for the missing days and simply include them in both his table of data and his graph.

  1. Did John's action violate any principle of scientific ethics?
  2. What other options did John have?
  3. If you were John, what would you have done?

Case # 3

Pete, Brooke and Lisa are laboratory partners in their chemistry class. Yesterday Lisa was absent. This required Pete and Brooke to work very diligently to complete the experiment during the lab period so they could hand in the report in class today. Today Lisa has returned to school after being ill. She meets her lab partners on the way into school in the morning and asks them for the data from yesterday's experiment so she can write it up during study period and hand it in. Pete is willing to give Lisa the data, but Brooke objects.

  1. Was it right for Lisa to ask for the data?
  2. What other options does Lisa have.
  3. What should Brooke do if Pete gives Lisa the data, despite her objection?
  4. What would you do if you were Pete or Brooke? If you were Lisa?

Case # 4

Joe is making electrical measurements in a physics laboratory. Joe is a good student and is confident that he has set up the circuit properly. When Joe tries to do the required calculations to verify the formulas in his physics book he finds that the data he took appears to be incorrect. He suspects that one of the electrical components he was given is not working properly. His teacher, Mr. Grim, is busy helping some of the weaker students so Joe decides not to report his problem. Instead he does the mathematical calculations to determine what a correct set of data would be and simply changes his own data to match what he has calculated.

  1. Since Joe is bright enough to figure out the correct data is there anything wrong with what he did?
  2. What other options were there for Joe.
  3. If you were Joe, what would you have done?

Case # 5

Janet is putting a lot of effort into her final earth science report. She has neglected the course earlier in the year and has chosen a difficult topic to impress her teacher and get a good grade. Her friend Sarah, who is a very good student is working on the same topic. Janet asks whether she can work cooperatively with Sarah, as permitted by her teacher. Janet then puts in little further effort, knowing she can rely on Sarah to do a good job. Since she is Janet's friend, Sarah raises no objections to having Sarah simply put her name on the report and share the grade.

  1. Since Sarah does not object, is there anything improper about Janet's action?
  2. What other options are open to Sarah?
  3. If you were Sarah, what would you have done?
  4. How could the teacher change the assignment, without discouraging student cooperation, while preventing students from simply taking credit for work done by others?

Case # 6

Two years ago Central high hired new chemistry teachers, Mr. Young and Mr. Keen. Last year Mr. Young's students did not do as well on the statewide final exam as Mr. Keen's chemistry students. The number of chemistry students has been decreasing and the school is under pressure to reduce expenses. It is therefore very likely that the school administration will decide that only one chemistry teacher is needed. To improve his chances of being retained, it is important for Mr. Young's students to do well this year. He has just received a copy of this year's statewide exam. Mr. Young decides that during the last two weeks of class he will only review the particular material that is covered by questions on the exam and include many examples of problems that are almost identical to the exam questions.

  1. 1. Since he hasn't actually given his students the answers to the exam questions, is there anything wrong or unethical about Mr. Young's actions?
  2. Can you think of any negative consequences of Mr. Young's strategy?
  3. Is it a good idea for the state to give the teachers advance copies of the exam?

Case # 7

Andy is doing a physics lab in which he attaches different masses to the end of a spring and measures the increase in the length of the spring. The instructions are to express the results in the form of a simple graphical plot of the data. He quickly discovers that if he plots the mass versus the increase in the spring's length most of the points fall on a straight line. Two of the points are clearly off the line. Assuming that he must have made an error in measuring the spring's length in the case of these two points, Andy decides to erase them from his graph and data table when he hands in his lab report.

  1. Was Andy justified in omitting the points that didn't fall on the line?
  2. Is it ever permissible to ignore part of the data taken during an experiment? If so, under what circumstances.
  3. If you were Andy, what would you have done?

Case # 8

Mr. King teaches earth science at Central High. Larry, one of his students, is learning disabled and has difficulty reading. Larry works hard and Mr. King likes him. Twice during the year Larry has become discouraged and talked to Mr. King about dropping the course. Both times Mr. King persuaded him to stick with it. The final exam has several problems based on reading a preceding detailed description of an experiment. Larry finds this kind of problem particularly difficult and fails the exam with a score of 52. He needed a score of 72 to pass the course. Mr. King feels guilty about having encouraged Larry and he simply changes his grade in his record book to a 72. He justifies this to himself on the basis of his speculation that Larry would have done much better if he wasn't learning disabled.

  1. Is Mr. King's action justified?
  2. Can you think of any negative consequences of this action?
  3. What other options were available to Mr. King?

Case # 9

Steven has studied many hours for the chemistry midterm exam. He is confident that he will do well. He has lunch period just before the exam. He finishes quickly and gets to the chemistry classroom several minutes before the other students or the teacher. On his way to his desk he notices that his classmate George's desk has extensive notes related to the exam written on it. Since the desks are moveable he replaces the desk with the writing with one from the classroom next door. Steven is amused by the bewildered expression on George's face when he sits down and recognizes that his desk has been switched.

  1. Was George justified in switching the desk? Why?
  2. What other options were open to George?
  3. If you were George, what would you have done?

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The format of this lesson provides the science teacher with the opportunity to have the students consider a variety of classroom ethics issues that are based on his or her past teaching experience. The value of including cases that involve dubious behavior by teachers is that it reassures students that the teacher recognizes that all human beings, not only students, occasionally engage in questionable ethical behavior. As specified in the lesson, the role of the teacher during the discussion should be to encourage the students to explore the various ethical choices related to each of the cases. In general teachers should refrain from presenting their own views about the ethical issues raised by the cases so as not to discourage students from making their own decisions. The authority associated with the position of teacher can undermine the intent to encourage students to examine all of the behavioral options and reach their own personal decisions on the issues. However, if a teacher has included a particular case because it illustrates an ethical choice by students that he or she considers unacceptable, then the teacher may wish to make this clear, if the student discussion of the issue reveals some ambiguity.

Return to Part 2 - Model Classroom Lessons

Return to Ethics in the Science Classroom: An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers

Cite this page: "Lesson 2, Student and Teacher Behaviors in Science" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 7/13/2006 OEC Accessed: Tuesday, March 28, 2017 <>