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High school students will debate ethics of cyborg roaches with help of Virginia Tech researchers

January 29, 2016

Cockroach wearing electrodes
A course unit developed by a team of Virginia Tech researchers and local educators encourages students to think critically about the ethics of new technologies such as integrating robotic technology into living organisms like cockroaches. Photo courtesy of Random Found Objects.

Two cockroaches scuttle into earthquake rubble looking for survivors.

One cockroach is a robot, driven by remote control. The other cockroach, a live one, has a backpack glued to it and is wired with electrodes so it can be steered via a smartphone app.

Which cockroach does the better job, and are both options ethical?

Students enrolled in Michael Collver’s robotics class at Blacksburg High School will debate these questions in the next few weeks when they participate in "Wired for Controversy: i-Cockroaches vs. RoboRoaches," a course unit developed by Virginia Tech researchers David Schmale and David Lally and local educators Collover and Cindy Bohland. The project, which encourages students to think critically about the ethics of new technologies such as drones and autonomous vehicles, was highlighted in the December issue of the journal The Science Teacher.

"Autonomous vehicles are poised to become part of our everyday lives, and scientists are now studying ways to integrate similar robotic technology into living organisms," said Schmale, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate. "Insect cyborgs could one day be used for military intelligence and rescue operations, and we need to develop scientifically literate citizens to make well-reasoned ethical decisions about the potential use of this technology."

Bohland, with the Roanoke Governor’s School for Science and Technology, incorporated the unit into her dual enrollment biology class for juniors last year.

"It was an eye-opening project," said Tavia Sturgill, now a senior at the Roanoke Governor’s School for Science and Technology. "Not only did I get to experiment with fascinating technology, but I got to learn more about my peers through their own personal take on the experiment. The roaches were interesting but the opinions floating around the room made it twice as interesting."

"There are certain things you never expect to do in a classroom," said Chris Pufko, also a senior. "This was definitely one of them."

The team that developed the project had worked together before and, therefore, Schmale and Lally knew exactly who to contact when funding became available for this project from theInstitute for Society, Culture and Environment and the Fralin Life Science Institute.

"Virginia Tech has a long tradition of outreach and public engagement," said Lally, a project associate in the department of plant pathology, physiology and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate. "In this unprecedented era of rapid knowledge, discovery, and transformational technology development, it is essential to include young people in discussions about the future they will inherit. We were all inspired by the passion and intelligence of the students!"

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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