Nanotech Database

Article Title:
Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students Through Science Fiction

Berne, Rosalyn W.

Journal Information:
Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society
Vol. 25, Num. 6


Berne and Schummer discuss what the presentation of nanotechnology in an engineering class. Such classes do sometimes consider social implications, but just as often, they do not. They say "[t]he two main issues are whether engineering ethics should be a freestanding course or pervading the engineering curriculum and whether engineers, philosophers/ethicists, or a team of engineers and philosophers should teach it." (460) Central to their argument is the conviction that science fiction "can help students to approach an understanding otherwise inaccessible, except through the realm of intuition, emotion, and imagination. Traditional deontology cannot easily be applied to futuristic technologies if life then may in no way resemble what we now know life to be. To approach ethics of futuristic technologies in the engineering classroom, rationalistic methodologies must be supplemented with awareness of feelings and even fears, excitements, and dreams about what students may one day play as either consumers or designers of that future. Only then can they learn to articulate and define moral judgments and standards about the development of technologies that promise such profound changes to the characteristics of human life." (462) The authors canvass several texts, among which are Greg Bear's Blood Music, Michael Crichton's Prey, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and Michael Flynn's The Nanotech Chronicles, the latter two of which they favor. They conclude: "If accompanied by guided classroom discussion, selected science fiction stories can be used to introduce students to pertinent ethical concepts, to train awareness of moral issues, to educate skills for solving moral conflicts, and to prepare them for their future role as responsible engineers." (467)