The Bioethics Project: An Ethics Institute Signature Program

By: Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute

With guest perspectives from:

The Ethics Institute’s Signature Upper School Program

Annual Bioethics Symposium

The Bioethics Project is a signature program of Kent Place School in which selected students engage in scholarly research and present on a pertinent topic in bioethics. A first-of-its-kind program in secondary schools, The Bioethics Project is modeled after The Hastings Center’s hallmark research methodology which emphasizes the importance of bringing stakeholders and experts together to explore the ethical and social implication of a given bioethical issue. Students are paired with mentors from Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics who provide guidance on the broadest aspects of students’ individual topics, and the ethical framework which must be taken into consideration throughout the research and writing processes. The contribution that the students make to the field of ethics is then shared through presentations at the annual Bioethics Project Symposium which is open to the public. The finished research papers are then published on the Bioethics Project website. 

Key Program Elements

Course Work: Students take an intensive course in ethical decision-making and bioethics during which they are introduced to key ethical and bioethical concepts through engagement with a range of major topics and cases. These concepts are taught by experts in varying fields and visiting scholars so that students have a broad understanding of the breadth and depth of key ethical principles and the tensions between them. 

Research and Mentorship: Throughout the first trimester of intensive coursework, students are encouraged to consider the topics and determine for themselves which they find most compelling and for which they would like to pursue intensive research. Under the guidance of Kent Place School teachers and Georgetown University research specialists, the students conduct intensive research. They are then paired with a scholar from Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics who serves as a mentor throughout the research and presentation processes. In the winter, students present their preliminary findings to their teachers, mentors, and bioethics experts at a day-long Project Meeting. Students articulate their findings and main ethical questions/considerations, and provide feedback to one another about areas for further research and development.

Community Symposium: The annual Bioethics Symposium is the signature event of The Bioethics Project. It is an opportunity for the students to lead their community in educational workshops that showcase their research and ethical analysis. 

Website: Following the Symposium, students complete their individual research papers and create a Bioethics Project website. Final papers are published on this website to serve as an ongoing educational resource for the greater community. The students’ research provides not only pertinent information on relevant bioethical topics, but also the ethical framework that one might utilize when considering these critical issues. Click here to visit the website. 

Teacher Persepctive: Impact on Student Learning

Ms. Crowe, US & MS Science

Given the seemingly daily advancements in technology, and in light of our challenging current circumstances, the need to discuss and understand scientific topics through an ethical lens has never been more necessary. It is working with my students and colleagues that I value the most, as they inspire me on a daily basis and push me to continue learning as we explore these relevant and crucial areas. The nature of this course allows us to discuss a variety of topics, and then see them through the lens and perspective of those around us. This, in turn, quite often forces us to pause and potentially re-consider our own position. As such, there is always something new to learn. These types of free-flowing conversations facilitate creative thinking, and foster a setting in which there is not one “right” answer. Teaching and learning bioethics opens oneself up to new points of view, ultimately helping us to make more informed decisions grounded in personal values.

To me, the most significant impact for students who participate in the Bioethics Project is the change that occurs in their personal way of thinking. Through discussion, analysis, writing, and presenting, students develop and strengthen the ways that they process nuanced topics, which has a rippling effect on everything that they learn. While the course name indicates the study of science and ethics, the learning goes much beyond that, as it is an interdisciplinary examination covering but not limited to religion, law, philosophy, medicine, and history. Students are challenged not just to re-state research that has been done, but analyze it as a whole, come to their own conclusions, and share this awareness with others. Through public colloquiums, such as at the Bioethics Symposium, our scholars develop and apply valuable public speaking skills in order to present their research and conclusions in the most effective, thoughtful, and respectful manner. In turn, the goal is to inspire the audience to continue to ponder these topics and add to the discourse. Thus, by participating in this course, students begin to listen in different ways, see subtle distinctions that were not apparent before, and may ultimately change the way they view the world. The potential for growth is tremendous.

It is difficult to pick out a particular “favorite” moment in class. For me, I am fond of the small random moments when a different perspective is raised or a student shares a new insight that I had not considered. However, when I think of the Bioethics experience as a whole, two distinct events come to mind. The first is our three-day trip to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. First and foremost, this trip is an opportunity for the students to meet and discuss various topics with their mentors at Georgetown University. Their mentors share a wealth of knowledge and help the students to start the process of both broadening their research yet grounding it within the realm of ethics. The trip also allows students to access the incredible Bioethics Research Library, which is the world’s largest collection of bioethics resources. The nature of the course and classroom dynamic require a level of trust that further develops on this trip. The Project Meeting, which takes place on campus is February, is the second experience that stands out to me. On this day, students are asked to present their research to a room filled with their peers, teachers, and other experts in the field. Their mentors also join virtually to share in the feedback. This is often the first time that students are challenged to share such a lengthy presentation, followed by fifteen minutes of questioning and feedback. The collaborative nature of the day is truly remarkable, and the opportunity to hear from such varying voices is an experience that pushes the research forward.

Community Perspective: The Value of a Multi-disciplinary Program

Lisa Goldman, JD

Bioethics touches every aspect of the human lifecycle and our interactions with people, animals and our planet.  Studying Bioethics gives students a vocabulary for discussing complicated multidisciplinary topics and a framework for evaluating the competing considerations presented by real-world challenges. When does life begin?  When and how should we use – or not use – medical innovations or scientific discoveries?  How should we allocate scarce resources?  What are our duties to other people? What are our responsibilities to each other?  Is it ever right to treat another person as a means to an end?  Should the greatest good for the greatest number prevail – and what is the “greatest good?”  Next year, we will be focusing on Justice – what does justice mean in different contexts?  What is the role of Justice in preserving human dignity?

Students of Bioethics can thoughtfully, responsibly and credibly participate in ethical discourse and help educate peers, family members, other researchers and the community at large about the ethical challenges we face in our country and around the world. 

The Bioethics Project is a perfect Signature Program for a school committed to fostering brave and brilliant young women.  Over the course of a year, the Bioethics Scholars define and refine who they are – and who they want to be – by exploring ethical questions and topics as old as civilization and as new as the latest scientific discovery. As a volunteer with the Ethics Institute, I find it deeply gratifying to work with these talented, thoughtful and creative students. I am proud to know them now, and I know that in the future, I will be proud to say, “I knew them when….”