Studio 105: A different kind of ethics class

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“This class is a lot harder than all of my other classes—but it is definitely beneficial. It is rounding out my college education, bringing creativity to a class that would otherwise just be a requirement.”

It’s not an uncommon sentiment in PHIL 105-04, a studio-based course being co-taught by a philosopher and a designer at Georgetown this fall. The course is billed as an introduction to bioethics—moral issues in health, the environment, and emerging technologies—but students are getting a side of design education along with their ethics.

“In the studio setting, students create in order to learn, and learn from the process of creating,” explains professor of philosophy Maggie Little, who is co-delivering the course with designer Arjun Dhillon. A renowned bioethicist and director of Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Little is enthusiastic about the multiple intersections between engaged ethics and the practice of design. This semester’s course is being offered as a pilot project in EthicsLab , an initiative by the Kennedy Institute of Ethics to make progress on complex bioethical problems by supplementing traditional approaches with new methods from innovation and design labs.

Students are tackling real-world bioethics projects such as genome sequencing, clinical trial design for ethically complex populations, and informed consent procedures. Two EthicsLab Scholars-in-Residence will contribute their expertise, as visiting instructors and real-world project owners. Spencer Wells, a geneticist and explorer at National Geographic, will work with students to develop a protocol for truly informed consent to having their own genomes sequenced, an option open to every student enrolled in the course this semester. Jason Campagna, an anesthesiologist at critical care medicine company, will work with students on a very real puzzle: how to conduct morally sound research on medical treatments for preeclampsia, a condition of pregnancy that is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide.

“In studio courses, students are encouraged to fail publicly, and fail fast,” explains Dhillon, who as head of design at EthicsLab brings years of experience in industrial, digital, and experience design to the classroom. Project-based learning is at the heart of the studio method, in which students create tangible objects for juried critique by outside experts several times throughout the semester. Students build bioethics knowledge as they develop resilience, inquisitiveness, and collaborative skills.

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These public presentations, or “crits,” are “the guarantors of project authenticity,” according to Dhillon, because student work is being delivered not just to the instructors who assigned it, but to an audience with diverse areas of expertise. They are an important mechanism for integrating deep engagement with authentic problems and real-world audiences into the core curriculum, an underlying objective of the Studio 105 experiment. The most recent “crit” involved jurors ranging from English professors to instructional designers to comic book experts, who gave candid feedback on student work centered on the meaning of informed consent.

Bioethicists were among the jury members as well, offering a strong reminder of the value of creative and collaborative inquiry oriented around tangible artifacts for a field whose problems arise, and must ultimately be addressed in, the complex and messy reality of real human lives.

This fall’s studio course is designed to do several things beyond its immediate impact on this semester’s cohort.

It represents an effort to broaden the range of options available for teaching practically-engaged ethics to beginners (and beyond) at Georgetown, building a portfolio of innovative pedagogical tools to be sampled and incorporated by other faculty across the university.

It is also designed to test a variety of pedagogical tools and approaches that will form the core of an interdisciplinary course cluster in bioethics slated to debut in Spring 2015. Featuring writing-intensive, philosophy-grounded, and scientifically-oriented arms, the course community will bring diverse groups of students, faculty, and graduate students together to use design as critical inquiry on a bioethics topic.

As part of the university-wide initiative to develop boundary-crossing curricular structures, the Studio 105 class is also feeding discussions about larger-scale curricular shifts, such as a radically interdisciplinary certificate in bioethics for undergraduates and a design-driven MA or integrated BA/MA program in engaged ethics for more advanced students.

“This is a very exciting time to be at Georgetown,” says Little. “University leadership is consistently pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in higher education, and the Kennedy Institute is grateful and proud to be a leading partner these experiments.”

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