Outreach program introduces high school students to philosophical questions, topics

Associate professor and chair of philosophy David Levy created a Philosophy Outreach Program to teach high school students in local school districts about various philosophical topics. Through this program, Geneseo philosophy students create lesson plans which include thought-provoking games to engage students (Udeshi Seneviratne/photo editor).

Beginning in fall 2018, Geneseo students have been visiting local high schools through a philosophy outreach program developed by associate professor and chair of philosophy David Levy. The students devise lesson plans to introduce philosophical topics to high school students and encourage philosophical thinking among younger audiences.

The lesson plans focus on thought experiments and ethical quandaries that engage classrooms in interactive activities and discussion. So far, Geneseo’s philosophers have presented lessons to five school districts: Geneseo, Avon, Livonia, Honeoye Falls-Lima and Mount Morris. Each site has featured plenty of student interest in the topics. 

“Every school has followed up with ‘we want you back.’ The challenge this semester has been in keeping up with the demand and preparing ourselves for new visits by developing new lessons,” Levy said. “I want the students to have ownership over developing lessons, and task them with thinking of topics and figuring out the best way to present them.” 

One thought experiment presented to the high school students was the trolley problem. Students are asked to imagine an out-of-control trolley heading straight toward five people who are trapped on the tracks and cannot move. In the scenario, the students stand next to controls for a switch that can divert the trolley to another track, on which only one person is standing.

The college students ask the high schoolers to go to one side of the room if they would choose to divert the trolley, killing one person, or move to the opposite side of the room if they would refrain from diverting the trolley, which would result in the deaths of five people. 

The lesson pushes students to make a tough ethical decision and then discuss their reasoning with peers. After the initial discussion, Geneseo students add variations to the problem: in one situation, the one person on the track is their best friend, and in another, the five people on the other track are all serial killers. 

“I think the function of this is really to try to get [students] to reflect on the thing that matters from a moral point-of-view,” Levy said. “Is it the numbers, or is it, ‘I got involved?’ Killing one seems like it is better than killing five, except that in order to kill one, you are the one [doing the killing].” 

Biology and philosophy double major junior Lauren Sternberg is one of seven Geneseo students involved with the outreach program. She described how the high school students get very passionate about arguing the ethical dilemmas.

“It presents this ethical argument for which there are no right answers,” Sternberg said. “Half the time there is at least one kid who says, ‘I just want to stand in the middle because I don’t know what to do,’ and we’re like, ‘well you have to pick a side.’”

As a pre-med student who is not planning on entering the field of philosophy upon graduation, Sternberg emphasizes the value of philosophy as a subject that improves critical thinking and communication skills. She believes the program has given her valuable practice with public speaking and presentation skills.  

“Philosophy in general teaches really important skills. No matter where you work, there will always be situations in which you have to debate a side,” Sternberg said. “Philosophy has made me a better arguer, as well as improving my listening skills and ability to see the light in alternative arguments.” 

Levy is excited to continue the outreach program next year and has built the program into the philosophy department’s seminar next semester called “Public Philosophy” in which students will have the opportunity to think about and demonstrate how a philosophical problem can be communicated effectively to a non-expert audience.