Biological Impact and Ethical Implications of Pesticide Use: A Short Module for Upper-Division-Undergraduate Biochemistry Courses


In the Fall of 2015 and in the 2016–2017 academic year, we conducted a two-week, team-taught, interdisciplinary module concurrently in an advanced biochemistry course, offered in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, and a sophomore-level environmental-ethics course, offered in the Religion Department, at Oberlin College. The focus of the unit was the mechanism of pesticides and the ethics of their use domestically and in agriculture, using Silent Spring by Rachel Carson as a primary text. The general question our students explored was: How does understanding the chemistry of various pesticides impact biological systems and larger preservation and conversation practices? Posing the question in this manner signaled to students that to adequately grapple with pressing environmental concerns, we must utilize an integrated approach and response. Students in both classes were exposed to chemical and biological mechanisms of different types of pesticides at their level of assumed knowledge and learned about several ethical theories that they then applied to real-world case studies. The two instructors (a biochemist and an ethicist) visited each other’s classrooms and taught lectures relevant to their specialties (e.g., the biochemist taught a lecture on pesticide mechanisms of action). Students completed a reflection assignment about the unit as well as a research paper about a pesticide of their choice, which demonstrated their knowledge about the pesticide’s mechanism of action and explored the ethics of that pesticide’s use. We believe this module is easily adaptable to any biochemistry or environmental chemistry course. We provide a detailed description of the module and our assessment of its impact on students’ ability to apply general ethical theories to complex societal issues.


American Chemical Society

Publication Date


Publication Title

Journal of Chemical Education


Chemistry and Biochemistry

Document Type





Biochemistry; Ethics; Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary; Problem Solving/Decision Making; Upper-Division Undergraduate





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