SRU expands ethics education, competition opportunities


ethics bowl students

(From left) SRU Ethics Bowl team members Jayme Kerr, Brittany Rhoades, Spencer Knafelc, Matt Pleso, Matt Bayless and Kristofer Davis.

Dec. 9, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University is offering students new opportunities to learn about ethics, the study of right and wrong, and compete in ethics competitions, both on campus and in national tournaments.

Six undergraduates recently became the first SRU students to participate in the Central States Regional Ethics Bowl at Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Twenty-eight student teams from Pennsylvania, Indiana, Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio and Michigan competed.

"The months spent in preparation and the opportunity to compete against some of the top teams in the nation was a formidable challenge but was also a unique and transformative experience for our students," said Andrew Colvin, associate professor of philosophy.

Ethics Bowl is a collegiate competition developed by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Teams of up to five students debate ethical issues. The top five teams in the regional tournament win a berth to the National Ethics Bowl Tournament.

SRU's team included Spencer Knafelc, a psychology and philosophy major from Beaver Falls, who served as the team's captain; Jayme Kerr, a philosophy and French major from Pittsburgh, who served as co-captain; Matthew Bayless, a psychology and philosophy major from Pittsburgh; Matthew Pleso, a psychology and philosophy major from Bristol; Brittany Rhoades, a environmental science and philosophy major from Grove City; and Kristofer Davis, a psychology and philosophy major from Moon Township.

Tom Sparrow and Andrew Winters, SRU instructors of philosophy, coached the team.

"Students debated complex, real-world ethical dilemmas where the right thing to do may not be at all clear, such as forced chemotherapy and spending $250,000 a year to protect the kakapo parrot in New Zealand," Colvin said.

"In preparation for the competition, teams spent several months discussing how these cases should be resolved and developing arguments in support of their positions," Colvin said.

Judges assessed students in their understanding of the facts in the case, their ability to articulate ethical principals and their ability to present an effective argument for solving a case.

"While the team members did not gain a berth to the national competition, they went head to head against some of the top teams in the nation and earned valuable experience that will help them prepare for next year's event," Colvin said.

Knafelc said participating challenged him to be thoughtful about ethical issues.

"The benefits of this extend far beyond academia," he said. "It facilitates the development of a skill that so many seem to lack in today's world - the ability to have thoughtful and productive discourse about some of today's largest and most complex moral issues."

"Not only the experience of going against other schools, but even talking among ourselves in preparation for the competition, generated great discussion along with a better understanding of how to begin affecting meaningful change in the world," Knafelc said.

Kerr said she participated in the competition originally because it would be a fun extracurricular activity and look good on her resume for graduate school.

"Working through the cases and learning about my team became by far the most rewarding aspect of the experience," she said. "The competition came to mean much more to me than simply a key point on a resume. Working closely with my professors, Dr. Winters and Dr. Sparrow, as our coaches was a great way to establish a relationship with them. Having their input and guidance was a great help when approaching the way in which we wanted to present our arguments."

Kerr said weekly meetings helped the group organize its thoughts and strategies for the ethics cases.

"It was hard at times trying to find a way to come together on such extreme issues such as whether or not to place Native-American children into non-tribal households or whether or not it was right to force a patient to receive chemotherapy," Kerr said. "When we did, and we were able to formulate strong potential solutions it felt really rewarding being a part of a sincere team."

Colvin said ethics is concerned with right action and moral obligation. It is not a study of human behavior or religion or a survey of values, but rather a critical examination of the moral principles that ought to guide peoples' choices and their interactions with others in their personal and professional lives.

"Learning to think carefully about right and wrong, to identify and resolve moral dilemmas, to formulate ethical principles and to give thoughtful consideration to opposing points of views - these are all essential to what we try to do here at Slippery Rock University," Colvin said.

In spring 2015, SRU hosted its own Inaugural SRU Intracollegiate Ethics Bowl that pitted teams of SRU students from across the University against one another. Eighteen SRU students competed, and 10 faculty and administrators served as moderators and judges. The Second Annual SRU Intracollegiate Ethics Bowl will take place April 23 and is open to students and faculty from across the University.

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