Houston high school students explore ethical questions at Rice

On a Friday morning in mid-June, a group of 15 high school students who were gathered in Rice’s Humanities Building intently read over a case study describing the massive amounts of electronic waste from developed countries that end up in China, India and developing West African nations. Among the questions posed to them: Is it morally permissible for developed nations to sell potentially hazardous e-waste to willing buyers in developing nations?

Peter Zuk (center), an advanced doctoral student in the Philosophy Department, discusses a case study with participants in the Ethics and Society camp. Photo by Brandon Martin

Peter Zuk (center), an advanced doctoral student in the Philosophy Department, discusses a case study with participants in the Ethics and Society camp. Photo by Brandon Martin

The assignment was part of Ethics and Society, a new three-week summer program that was offered by Rice’s Department of Philosophy. The students were introduced to theoretical conceptions of justice and normative ethics. “We do that largely here in the classroom,” said program coordinator Adam Valenstein, a teacher at the John Cooper School in The Woodlands. “During the second week, we go out into the world. We learn how ethics and ethical decision-making play a role in the lives of professionals in different organizations.”

The broad vision for the camp was set by Valenstein, who had worked with the Philosophy Department in organizing the annual Houston High School Ethics Bowl, which has been held at Rice since 2014. The curriculum was developed and led by Peter Zuk and Brandon Williams, two advanced doctoral students in the Philosophy Department.

“A lot of these concepts and ideas are not something that kids of this age are often exposed to,” Williams said. “From my perspective, one of the major aims and goals for this program is to do just that, try to give them these tools such that they can then be disseminated in their own context, at their own schools.”

The tuition-free program was open to rising juniors and seniors who attend Houston-area public and charter schools and who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The participants spent about five hours at Rice each day of the program.

As part of the camp, the students visited three sites that represent industries vital to Houston’s identity, Valenstein said: Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy; Anadarko Petroleum, where they heard a presentation by the company’s general counsel on corporate social responsibility and business ethics; and Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston’s Refugee Services department.

“It helps you consider … what’s right for you and what might be right for others,” said Kendall Jackson, a student at Harmony School of Advancement, when discussing the camp’s activities and readings. “It helps you find a standpoint on how you’re going to make your own decisions in life.”

For Erick Chungata, a student at Northbrook High School, the camp is a “stepping stone,” he said. “I want to keep learning,” he said. “Maybe I’ll venture out of this class and … look into more ethics and society things, more morality and more philosophy.”

Zuk commended the students’ engagement. “They all seem very driven and very, very politically aware for students of this age,” he said. “It makes our job very easy.”

The camp was supported by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state chapter of the National Endowment for the Humanities and funding from Rice’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders. Valenstein and his Philosophy Department collaborators intend to run the program again in 2017 if funding can be secured, he said.

To view a Rice News video about the camp, go to http://youtu.be/8cJJSxi4Bes.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.