Conversation Starters and Activities

Organizing or sponsoring activities is one way you can help to increase conversations in our community about working through the ethical challenges engineers and researchers face. Consider initiating an activity in your classroom, research group, or student cohort.

These suggestions and examples are intended as are starting points only. The examples are divided among various contexts. Mix and match, modify an activity for use in a different context, create your own activities or approaches, and share what works for others to use.

The items listed here have all been used previously in other settings. They are useful for promoting meaningful conversations, easy to implement, and likely to be fun.

  • Book Club: Host a monthly book club for everyone to discuss fiction (e.g., Phillip K. Dick's short stories Minority Report or Second Variety) or other non-fiction (e.g., this list).
  • Movie Night: Host a monthly movie night for everyone with a popular movie (e.g., Ex Machina) or an episode in a series (e.g., Black Mirror), followed by discussion.
  • Professionalism Meetings: Convene occasional professionalism meetings to share experiences and talk about strategies for resolving issues.
  • Ethics Disaster Drills: Run occasional drills where faculty, staff and students can practice engaging with colleagues to address problematic behavior
  • Workshops: Develop and deliver an occasional workshop on engineering ethics.
  • Required Courses: Require ethics courses for all trainees
  • Elective Course: Develop and deliver a new elective course on engineering ethics.
  • Graduate Student Peer Mentoring: Train all graduate students to mentor peers.
  • Faculty Mentors: Train interested research mentors to explicitly articulate the ethical dimensions of choices they make.
  • Telling Stories: Train interested research mentors to leverage power of narrative (telling stories of personal experience with professional ethics issues, both positive and negative) in mentoring students on responsible conduct.
  • Faculty Peer Mentoring: Train interested faculty on peer mentoring, including typical career advancement topics as well as responsible conduct.
  • Question-based lecture: Identify key points to be covered, frame as questions, and deliver “lecture” by asking learners the questions. When answers are correct, re-affirm and clarify if needed. If answers are not given or not correct, then fill in and/or correct as needed.
  • Game show: Use PowerPoint templates with a game show format (e.g., “Who wants to be a millionaire?”) to get learners to answer questions covering information of interest.
  • Scenes from a hat: Write characteristics of different types of individuals involved in a research dispute, have pairs of learners draw from the hat to select roles, have them discuss a challenging issue (e.g., authorship, sharing of data), and reflect on what did and did not work with the class. [From Dr. Lisa Eyler, UC San Diego, based on “Scenes from a hat” as used in game show “Whose line is it anyway?”]
  • Reflections: Give students 2-3 minutes to reflect on a question, write down their answer, share (either in pairs or with the class), and discuss.
  • Questions: Give students 2-3 minutes to write down key question(s) they have (or still have…), and then address their questions in class.
  • Video clips: Identify relevant video clips (e.g., from episodes of HouseBig Bang Theory, or Star Trek) to use as starting points for discussion about issues in science.
  • Advance Survey: In advance of class, distribute electronic survey to elicit agreement (strongly disagree to strongly agree) with statements about topic. Analyze results and use as a basis for discussion with learners at next meeting.
  • In class poll: Use online tool (e.g., or embedded poll option in Zoom to poll learners on multiple choice questions, and discuss results received in real time.
  • Role play: Divide class into groups of three, with instruction to discuss challenging issue in character (e.g., grad student and PI); third group member observes and reports back on successes, weaknesses, and results of discussion. [Brummel BJ, Gunsalus CK Anderson KL, Loui MC (2010): Development of role-play scenarios for teaching responsible conduct of research. Science and Engineering Ethics 16(3):573-589.]
  • Debate: Divide class into pairs of small groups (4-5 people), with half the groups responsible for pro and the other half con on a defined issue. After sufficient time to develop arguments, groups are called on successively to raise arguments and counterarguments to each other (e.g. Debate Formats).
  • Thesis or Senate Exams: Incorporate an ethics section into thesis or senate exams.
  • Joint Group Meetings: Schedule occasional joint group meetings to foster sharing of ideas and diversity of views.
  • Peer Review of Research Groups: Develop mechanism for peer reviews of research group policies and management as a way to share ideas. A case could be made to include positive reviews in files for academic advancement.
  • Research Lectures or Meetings: Routinely insert a few minutes to ask or answer a related ethics question as part of a regular research lecture series or in journal clubs.
  • Faculty Meetings: Include talks or discussions about ethics, civic culture, or how to have difficult discussions in faculty meetings.
  • Ask everyone: To elicit pros or cons about a particular course of action, or brainstorming items on a list, ask each member of group to come up with possibility not already covered. React and clarify as appropriate. Continue until all members have participated, or ideas have run out.
  • SOP 4 GRP: Assign group the task of developing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Good Research Practice (e.g., a policy for authorship, requirements for recordkeeping).
  • Code of conduct: Either provide or have members of group find relevant professional code of conduct and use as a starting point for discussion (e.g., Why are these elements included? What’s missing?).
  • Current events: For almost any topic involving the practice of research or engineering, members of the group can be challenged to find a recent news story, blog entry, journal article, etc. and then use as starting point for group discussion.
  • Look it up: Have members of group look up answers to questions about, for example, responsible data management, authorship guidelines, or designing experiments to mitigate risks of bias.
  • Assigned discussion report: Ask members of group to come up with a specific question about responsible practices (e.g., “Under what circumstances is it OK for a PI to show a manuscript received for journal review to a trainee?”) as a starting point for discussion.
  • Broader Impact: Use development of “broader impact” statements for grant proposals as a way to engage trainee(s) in considering social responsibility in science.
  • Grant Writing: Enlist trainee(s) in process of grant writing.

Develop (or Collect) and Share:

  • Principles of Responsible Research: Overview document outlining guidelines for “Principles of Responsible Research.”
  • Guidelines: Guidelines and/or best practices for topics such as mentoring, authorship, and data management.
  • Addressing Ethical Challenges: Resources for identifying, understanding, and/or addressing ethical challenges.
  • Checklists: Sample checklists on publication standards and authorship, data management, record keeping, etc. that can be adapted (e.g., checklist to be used when submitting materials for publication that prompts discussion of ethical issues such as authorship, plans for sharing data or materials).
  • Misconduct Consequences: De-identified information about allegations of research misconduct, findings, and sanctions to make clear these issues are taken seriously.
  • Assessing and Selecting Labs: Guidance for prospective students and students doing rotations on ways to assess and select labs.
  • Failure CVs: “Failure” CVs or resumes prepared by senior faculty to promote a culture that accepts failure as a normal part of science and engineering research.
  • Constructive Criticism: Tools to help students be constructive critics in reviewing work in progress, including addressing ethical dimensions of projects.
  • Papers for Journal Clubs: Examples of good papers to illustrate ethical issues for discussion as part of journal clubs.
  • Guidelines for Discussing Ethics: A guide to running discussions of scientific literature for faculty and other journal club presenters which includes tips on when and how to bring up ethics.
  • Ethics Activities: Ethics lessons or activities to be added to existing courses in the graduate curriculum.