Thursday, February 23, 2012

PEEP (Teaching Ethics in Physics)

The PEEP (Physics and Ethics Education Project) project provides a well thought out set of resources for teaching about ethical issues in physics.  It is perhaps surprising how little attention is typically spent in high school and university physics courses on ethical issues of physics related topics.  Physics expertise is critical to a full understanding of many of the issues such as climate change and energy issues that we face as a society. These resources can provide a starting point for physicists who want to increase attention on ethical issues in their physics class.

While the PEEP resources are primarily aimed at the high school level, many of the resources are also well suited for introductory physics.  Topics include radiation, climate change, weapons, space, energy and transportation (following image from the PEEP overviews the areas).  For each of these areas you can click on the topic, and then see a list of the specific issues. 

To give a flavour of some of the topics considered at PEEP let's consider the topic of the potential safety, or lack thereof, of cellular phones.  It starts with some background on how cell phones work, and what is ionizing radiation (and its effects), mentioning that while there may be small thermal effects from cell phone frequencies, it is not ionizing radiation.  Then it provides samples of media coverage of the issue.  It asks what you would do if designing an experiment to check out the safety of cell phones.  One feature I like is it ends with a number of people giving statements about the issue.

There is strong coverage of space physics related issues, including whether the cost of space research can be justified, what is orbital debris and what should we be doing about it, and issues related to searchers for extraterrestrial life. There is coverage of a number of diagnostic medical technologies, including X-ray, PET, NMR and ultrasound.  I would have liked to see a little more development on these topics.

The treatment on climate change will surely engage, starting with a UN quote saying that already 300,000 people are dying annually from climate change related issues.  It does a good job of setting the stage for this topic by identifying the key questions.  For example, on the topic of how good is the evidence there is actual data from mud and ice cores, satellite data and glacier retreat patterns.

If you click on People on the PEEP site you get a number of case studies of physicists who dealt with ethical issues related to their physics research.  The scientists include such well known physicists as Galileo, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. There is also coverage of less well known current scientists such as robotics developer Kevin Warwick who implanted microchips in his own body.

The PEEP resources are developed by a team of about a dozen experts centred at the University of Bristol.  As well as being a teacher resource, this is a science education research project to study the effectiveness of web based interactive resources.  The resources are freely available for download and while the development comes from Europe they will have universal appeal.  Teachers can download specific information on how to effectively use the resources. There is a biology oriented companion website, BEEP with similar resources.  It would be wonderful for a consortium of Canadian physicists to develop a similar set of resources with a Canadian focus, with specific attention to global change within a Canadian context, the medical isotope situation, CANDU, and other issues.  Coupled with the UBC Physics for the 21st Century this would give us a very relevant and powerful way to teach physics in a manner that students would find engaging and relevant.  If interested, or if you already know of such resources, why not add a comment?

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