Public Policy Course Embraces Problem Solving

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Destiny Cobb stepped outside of her comfort zone when she enrolled in a philosophy and public policy class on the topic of neuroethics — and she couldn’t be happier that she did.  

“Typically, I‘ve avoided these types of topics, because there’s always a gray area,” said Cobb, a second-year biomedical engineering major. “I took this class because I am interested in neuroscience. While I think lectures and labs are necessary to establish a broad knowledge base, it’s been nice to go from a class of 100, where I am passively taking in information, to an active group discussion among six or seven people.” 

The class Cobb is talking about is Biotechnology Law, Policy and Ethics and is taught by Roberta Berry, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy. Berry first learned about the problem-based learning (PBL) approach that she uses in the course from Wendy Newstetter, director of educational research and innovation for the College of Engineering.

Before Berry met Newstetter, she’d been thinking a lot about what she calls “fractious problems” in bioscience and biotechnology policy — such as issues related to embryonic stem cell research and end-of-life technologies. 

Berry observed five things that seemed to be common to these types of problems that explained why they generated such unproductive debates: they are novel, complex, ethically fraught, public and divisive. 

In her 2007 book, “The Ethics of Genetic Engineering,” Berry used these five features to outline a navigational approach to policymaking. 

“What was so striking to me about the work that Wendy and others were doing in PBL — bringing together teams of learners to resolve complex problems that crossed disciplinary boundaries — was the strong family resemblance to the decision-making processes in law and ethics that I had drawn from in developing my proposed navigational approach to policymaking for fractious problems,” she said. 

In 2009, the two began working together on a three-year National Science Foundation grant project related to PBL, and one component of the project was to formalize the navigational approach so that it could be used in learning environments. 

The result is “Six Skills for Addressing the Characteristics of Fractious Problems” that Berry now uses in the course that Cobb enjoyed.

In this semester’s course, Berry is teaching 19 students who are divided into four teams for the first problem and three teams for the second. 

About 11 weeks of the course are devoted to allowing teams to work on the problems, while the other four are used for class meetings to teach the students about subject matter related to the problems. 

This semester’s problems included one examining issues surrounding memory-dampening drugs and post-traumatic stress disorder in U.S. military service members. The other focused on using neuroimaging technology to identify students who are at risk for committing acts of violence. 

“The most challenging part of the problems we discuss is their complexity, as they span a range of fields,” said Cobb, who wrote about her experience in the class this semester for Charged Magazine. “For each issue, we have to look at everything: policy, ethics and technology. My group has found it helpful to split up the knowledge-building portion of the problem and share our research during our group sessions. When it’s time to tackle the problem and come to a consensus, we use Dr. Berry’s skills for addressing fractious problems.”

This semester, Berry worked with three graduate students who served as co-designers of the course, as well as team facilitators. Ruchir Karmali, a master’s student in public policy, and Sharon Norman and Jason Wang, both PhD students in bioengineering, are now working with Berry to design a spring 2013 course that will use PBL but will be taught to a large class of 180 undergraduate students. 

“PBL offers the opportunity to acknowledge the full dimensions of the complex problems that Georgia Tech students from all disciplines will encounter in their professional lives, and it prepares our students to be leaders in addressing them,” she added.

For more information, email Roberta Berry.



  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Amelia Pavlik
  • Created: 11/20/2012
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016

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