Teaching Bioethics With Pool Noodles

Who’s your friend that likes to teach you about scientific responsibility?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t just a parable about scientific hubris. In an era of Periscope and Anchor, Arduinos and 3D printers, everyone can be a creator. So how we treat our creations — after easily mastering the technology of their birth — is the key challenge of our time.

That’s just one of pressing issues my colleagues and I are investigating at Arizona State University under a grant from the National Science Foundation. It’s a worthwhile line of inquiry, to be sure — one that’s debated and discussed every day in philosophy classes around the world. But how do we train a generation of builders — those Generation Z tinkerers hopped up on Kiwi Crates and coding games — to think carefully about the impact of their creations? Armed with a case of pool noodles, we took a first step in answering these questions at ASU’s Night of the Open Door event.

Night of the Open Door is the university’s annual open house, providing a behind-the-scenes look at research being done on campus. The event features hundreds of hands-on activities, demos, and performances from across a wide spectrum of sciences, engineering, humanities, and the arts — and, as we determined, it was an ideal venue to conduct a little human experimentation.*

*fully authorized by ASU’s Institutional Review Board, and not at all harmful to children or pool noodles

“A new species would bless me as its creator and source…”

– Victor Frankenstein

Our tent was a boon for arts and crafts-loving kids: tables full of paper, felt, feathers, rubber bands, googly eyes, and pool noodles cut into six-inch segments. Attendees chose a noodle segment, and with the deftness of a competitive Mr. Potato Head-building champion, began customizing their creations with hair, arms, facial expressions, and uncapped markers for legs and feet.

Bot building

“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…”

Victor Frankenstein

Victor used electricity to animate his creature. We opted for battery-powered toothbrushes inserted into the pool noodle body, causing the creatures to skitter about on their felt-tipped legs and scrawl semi-random patterns across a butcher paper table runner.

“As I sat, a train of reflection occurred to me, which led me to consider the effects of what I was now doing….”

– Victor Frankenstein

After the kids had a chance to see their creations in action, we asked them to share their thoughts with us through an informal survey — and this is where it got interesting.

Of the 28 responses we collected (before our test subjects ran off to grab some liquid nitrogen ice cream):

Our queries
  • 57% reported that their creature was alive
  • 86% reported that the scribbles were art, created solely by the creature (and not them)
  • 50% reported that they would take responsibility for their creature’s positive impact on the world
  • 51% reported that they would take responsibility for their creature’s destructive impact

Behold: signs of responsible innovation and empathy for our creations. Maybe Victor should have practiced with some pool noodles instead.

We’d love to hear how this goes for you. Download the instructions to make a scribble creature of your own and let us know the discoveries it prompts for your family or your students.

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