BEAM: Preparing Ethicists to Make a Meaningful Difference in the World

Imagine a decorated gymnast facing a career-ending injury. Imagine a cutting-edge, experimental surgery in which this gymnast’s almost completely paralyzed body learns to heal itself using starfish DNA. Imagine that the Olympic Committee must rule on whether or not this young gymnast can compete due to the advantages granted to her by the surgery and if she is, in fact, human.

This is the plot of a short story by Mauren McHugh titled “The Starfish Girl,” published in Slate in 2018. It’s one of the many stories read by CDS students in Susan White’s and Dora Nelson’s Biosocial Ethics And Motives (BEAM) class. Like many of the sci-fi and cli-fi (climate fiction) stories BEAM students read, “The Starfish Girl” launches Nelson’s and White’s class into a flurry of questions and conversations based on several classifications of ethics.

BEAM, an interdisciplinary class created by White and Nelson five years ago, explores the relationship between scientific engagement and social responsibility, applying the scientific method to ethical quandaries in terms of environmental issues, civil rights, scientific and biotechnological advancements, social constructs, and medical rights.

“You start with a question,” Nelson explains. “You make a hypothesis, you experiment, you collect data, you make a decision, and that’s kind of a mirror of how you make ethical decisions. You identify an issue. You ask four basic questions—a scientific one and an ethical one, a legal one and a personal one—and then you analyze the situation, identify the stakeholders, gather information, and then come to an ethical decision.”

Through interconnected case studies, field trips, creative writing assignments, science labs, and fiction reading, White and Nelson have crafted the class so that their students have a holistic understanding of some of the most ethically gray issues across dozens of disciplines. This understanding is what helps their students realize that, often, there are no easy answers.

“They have strong opinions sometimes,” Nelson says. “And a ridiculous sense of fairness, and before they take the class they don’t understand that fair doesn’t always mean equal. It’s interesting to see how they change or shift their perspectives.”

By the time CDS Upper School juniors and seniors take BEAM, many of them don’t have a solid understanding of the difference between values, opinions, and ethical principles from different areas of the world. This is where White and Nelson begin.

“We’re teaching that discipline thought process and also making sure they understand that we’re not debating issues,” White explains. “We are considering all the stakeholders and looking at the issues through different lenses, including different ethical principles, and knowing that we’re never going to feel one hundred percent great about [the conclusions we come to].”

BEAM is the brainchild of Nelson and White, built from their commitment to Carolina Day School’s mission to foster students who “act with courage and compassion to confidently make a meaningful difference in the world.” Through the years, these two teachers have found themselves constantly surprised by the topics that interest their students. Each year, the class hosts a Civic Engagement Museum as the students’ final project, where they present their findings on everything from the opioid epidemic to lab-grown meat to self-driving cars. This year, that museum will be open to the public, especially for parents who want to see the college-level discourse and critical thinking their children are engaging in. This year also marks the second time BEAM will be offered as a year-round, instead of single-semester, class, something that has given Nelson and White the ability to dig even deeper into the complicated and multifaceted issues the class considers.

“One thing I hope is that when these students are considering their careers and the work that they do, that they’re not just considering themselves, and they’re thinking about the impacts they have,” White says. “And of course, I want them to do things they love, but in doing things that you love, there are ways that you can connect community-wise, globally and thoughtfully.”

These aren’t just empty platitudes. Nelson considers herself a field scientist, and White is a writer with a long publication list. But these teachers have a desire to use what they love to make an impact on their society, and they’re making that impact at Carolina Day. Nelson, who started her career at one of CDS’s predecessor schools, St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines, technically retired from teaching last year, but she feels compelled, called even, to continue teaching BEAM. After moving away from Asheville, she drives back several times a month, Zooming in when she cannot attend in person, to make sure CDS students have the best BEAM experience possible.

“These students are now facing challenges and decisions and situations that we never imagined,” Nelson says. “And I think that this course really provides a good foundation for thinking about those things ethically.”