‘Autonomy, Beneficence, and Justice’: Summer Bioethics Course Teaches Fundamental Theories and Thinking, Sparks Covid-19 Conversations

August 3, 2020

What ethical theories govern modern medicine and scientific practice? Why is it important to understand these ethical theories — and how can they be applied to pressing issues in medicine, biological research, and public policy?

This summer, students enrolled in a remote bioethics course taught by Michael Goodisman set out to tackle these complex questions, and quickly engaged in debate and discussion to better assess the challenging nuances of bioethical issues.

“The most important concepts taught in the course are the very basics of what makes an action ethical,” says Goodisman, an associate professor and the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Education in the School of Biological Sciences. “If students remember the three main moral principles of ‘Autonomy, Beneficence, and Justice’, and they can distinguish different types of ethical thinking, they will have learned the most important material in the class.”

Roshni Patel, a teaching assistant for the course and fourth-year neuroscience student, shares that she learns something new about bioethical issues each week of the course.

“I love hearing about how others view certain topics and having the chance to expand my own beliefs,” explains Patel. “In the past, bioethics was never a primary passion of mine. However, through being a student and TA in the course, I gained a newfound appreciation for it.”

Patel believes that the class is especially important for students who are seeking a career in healthcare, as bioethics provides a new perspective for evaluating and understanding medical practice.

“I believe that topics covering current issues such as genetic choices, human research, and health insurance are vital for a proper bioethics course,” Patel adds. “The majority of students in this course are pursuing a career in healthcare, and evaluating such topics provides them with a new perspective and more thorough understanding of the system as a whole.”

This summer, the influence of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has provided a particularly topical lens to help analyze bioethical challenges.

“We are living in a time of a great many ethical challenges — and current events have definitely influenced our class conversations,” says Goodisman.

For Sara Putman, a fourth-year biochemistry major enrolled in the course, Covid-19 was a primary motivator in enrolling for the course this summer.

“The current events have definitely had a huge impact on our projects and discussions in class,” shares Putman. “It has made the discussions in class more enjoyable and more applicable to real world scenarios. This makes the dilemmas more intense and personal.”

“The most interesting discussion we have had in class so far was our discussion about surrogacy,” she adds. “The recent pandemic has imposed travel restrictions in many countries, restricting the ability for genetic parents to get their babies if they have an international surrogate. The other problem, in some countries, is that if these babies are born without the legal parents in the country, then they are not considered citizens of that nation.”

Goodisman encourages discussion on current issues, and has shifted the focus of various assignments to encourage students to critically assess ethical issues tied to the pandemic.

"We just completed an assignment about whether it is ethical to require mask wearing on campus during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Goodisman. “The students could see how the policies, or lack thereof, would clearly influence them, and the faculty and staff at Georgia Tech. We have also talked about how the pandemic has changed healthcare and medicine all around the world.”

Putman found class conversation earlier this summer about mandating masks interesting and engaging, and shared that, "the general consensus of my discussion group is that [mandating masks] is one of the only ways GT will be approved to have in-person classes — and that it would be wise to do so.”

The course’s final term project allows students to explore a bioethical issue that personally resonates with them. Many have chosen to discuss issues related to the current pandemic.

“Many students are writing term papers that consider issues of just distribution of healthcare resources, the ethics of government policies, and vaccine development in the time of Covid-19,” says Goodisman.

The term papers, which focus on issues related to Covid-19, discuss problems ranging from the "Fair Allotment of Resources During Covid-19" to "Healthcare Inequities in the U.S. That Disproportionately Affect Minority Populations." The papers are available to view through Dropbox.

Since this summer’s course is being taught in a fully online format, Goodisman has also made a number of accommodations to keep students engaged and interested, and to ensure that they fully absorb the material. “This is the first time I’ve taught a fully online course,” he shares. “Fortunately, Bioethics is intrinsically interesting.”

“I instituted ‘face-to-face’ breakout groups through BlueJeans,” says Goodisman. “These have worked quite well and allowed small groups of students to see each other and discuss bioethical issues in a way that approximates in-person interactions. I’ve also tried to use creative assignments for the course. For example, we’ve frequently used online video discussions in class."

Goodisman shares that a favorite part of teaching Bioethics is the overarching perspective that the material provides, and that knowledge gained in the course changes student’s perspectives across many facets of life.

“Everyone comes into the class with a set of ideas about what they think about various bioethical issues,” he explains. “But I really like to see students open up and learn from different arguments. Sometimes you can see students confronting their preconceived ideas in new ways, in real time.”

Ultimately, Goodisman hopes that students leave the course with an understanding of what is ‘right’ in bioethical practices. “I think students should understand when ethical principles come into conflict in science and medicine, and be able to analyze such difficult situations clearly,” says Goodisman. “If they can, then they will be great scientists, doctors, and people.”

“‘May you live in interesting times’ goes the ancient curse — well, we are certainly living in interesting times,” he adds. “The unprecedented pandemic has transformed our lives. But this class has been an important anchor for me and, I hope, for my students. This has allowed us to remain linked to Georgia Tech through this exceptional summer semester. I know the students are growing and expanding their thoughts. And I know they are staying connected to our community. I’m glad we are in this together.”

Read student final papers via Dropbox link.

For More Information Contact

Grace Pietkiewicz
Communications Assistant
College of Sciences