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Ethical Decision - Making a Virtual World

November 9 , 2012

TransGen simulation west chester university

On November 14, researchers at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and Iowa State University conducted a live demonstration of TransGen (Transgenic) Island, a virtual exercise for science students that presents science content containing complex ethical dilemmas they might confront in the field of genetic modification.

The brainchild of faculty from West Chester, Iowa State and Princeton Universities, TransGen is the first simulation that integrates ethical dilemmas into college-level science and engineering course content.

In the simulation, students take on the role of researchers at TransGen, a (virtual) leading producer of genetically modified salmon. Within the virtual environment, the students gather and analyze data and produce a final report. During their research, they are faced with ethical issues in such areas as data integrity, the environmental impact of their work and animal welfare.

TransGen is the first in a series of virtual world, role playing educational exercises developed under the auspices of SciEthics Interactive with support from the National Science Foundation. Designed to cover broad scientific concepts easily integrated into a variety of science and engineering courses, SciEthics Interactive’s simulations will be readily available in OpenSim, an open source virtual environment, free of charge.

"We wanted to create a tool that would raise ethical awareness among students while, and not just in addition to, learning science," explains Joan Woolfrey, the principal investigator of the project and an associate professor of philosophy at West Chester with expertise in bioethics.

"Unlike the conventional classroom which would rely on a paper-based case study, the virtual module actually makes the exercise look, feel and sound like real science," adds Seth Kahn, an associate professor of English at West Chester and member of the SciEthics Interactive research team.

Three other members of the project are ethicist Matthew Pierlott, an associate professor of philosophy at West Chester; Larysa Nadolny, an assistant professor in the School of Education at Iowa State whose research focuses on emerging technologies, particularly virtual reality and gaming; and Carolyn Sealfon, an associate director of science education at Princeton.