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December 2023

Gen Ed in Action

Redefining Success and Failure: How Travis Merritt integrated ethics education into physics labs

In 2020, Travis Merritt received a grant from the Office of General Education to incorporate ethics education into General Physics Laboratory, a course for non-majors. 

Students were given a reading assignment regarding the importance of trust and reliability in the research process, which led to a worthwhile discussion. But the exercise, Merritt said, felt tacked onto the course, so when the pandemic upended teaching labs, he saw an opportunity to integrate ethics in every aspect of another course he was teaching, Foundations of Physics.

The result, Merritt hoped, was not only that his students had a deeper understanding of ethics in physics but a deeper understanding of the nature of science and its broader role in society.

“At the fundamental level of teaching, you have to teach to your student’s misconceptions,” said Merritt. “Students don’t come in as blank slates, they arrive with their own mental models.”

“For the last 18 years, they can’t help but develop their own understanding about the world, including the nature of science,” he said. “So many times students come into the classroom with misconceptions and we need to address them head-on.”

Rather than teaching with specific assignments, ethics education in Foundations of Physics lab became a lens to see the entire course through.

“The whole purpose of higher education is to get students to critically think and have these nuanced conversations,” said Merritt. “And by incorporating ethics education into every aspect of this lab, we’re able to have those important discussions throughout the semester.”

Below are a few ways Merritt incorporated ethics education into the entire curriculum of PHYS 2305/2306 and how it fits into his students’ broader understanding of the discipline.

Redefining ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in the lab

Typically, physics labs are highly structured with step-by-step instruction for students to reinforce information they learned in lecture. But students don’t get a lot of opportunities to make decisions, so it’s not really an authentic scientific practice, said Merritt. 

“That creates  a lot of problems, particularly confirmation bias,” he said. “Students think the teacher wants them to get a specific answer, which can lead to dubious ethical practices like throwing out data or having a very creative interpretation of their data to confirm a particular result.”

To reinforce that point, students are graded on the process, not the result of experiments. 

“It can take a whole semester for students to understand that the goal of experiments in the lab is not to ‘prove’ something but to rigorously test a scientific model,” said Merritt. “Whether an experiment is a 'success' or a 'failure' should be based on its process, not its outcomes.”

Creating productive “failures”

“At different points in the course, we allow students to ‘fail’ on a problem and use it as a learning opportunity,” said Merritt. “We present them with an activity where they have some of the requisite conceptual basis to solve that problem - but they don’t have everything they need.” 

“Sometimes they have to develop or invent new concepts, which creates a really valuable discussion between students and their instructors,” he added.  

The discussion, Merritt says, often leads to asking valuable questions: How do you actually design an experiment that thoroughly interrogates your research question? Based on your approach, what are some of the shortcomings of the experiment, and how can you overcome them? As you conduct the experiment, what practical strategies can you implement to mitigate your biases?

Supporting public trust of science

“Science is done by human beings, and people are fallible, so science needs guard rails, such as peer review systems, scientific societies, pre-registration, and, more recently, the open science movement to increase transparency,” said Merritt. “Invariably, this leads us to a discussion about the limitations of science and precautions students should take during their experiments to produce good science.

The hope, Merritt says, is that students ask important ethical questions as they design and conduct their investigations. What are our cognitive biases? Are there perverse incentive structures that encourage ethically dubious practices, undermining science, and eroding the public’s trust?

Or discuss the public perception of science, where it’s often seen as infallible rather than a process of discovery with often new, conflicting data. 

“We try to get away from the myth of the lone genius, the idea that a scientific discovery is done by just one person, when in fact it’s done by a community of scientists and it’s cumulative,” said Merritt. “It’s the idea that as scientists we’re a cog in the overall scientific machine.” 

“I ask the question, ‘how do we preserve trust in science,’ and that becomes our lodestar for the class.”