Risks and Benefits

What You Need

Risks and Benefits Photo Credit: Science NetLinks


To assess and weigh the risks and benefits associated with innovations in science and technology.


This lesson provides students with an opportunity to further their understanding of the risks and benefits associated with innovations in science and technology. Using the case study approach, students examine two examples of technological innovations and the risks and benefits associated with them.

Many important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of risks and benefits. Analyzing risk entails looking at probabilities of events and at how bad the events would be if they were to happen. Students need to learn that comparing risks is difficult because people vary greatly in their perceptions of risk, which tends to be influenced by such matters as whether the risk is gradual or instantaneous (global warming versus plane crashes), how much control people think they have over the risk (cigarette smoking versus being struck by lightning), and how the risk is expressed (the number of people affected versus the proportion affected.) (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 52.)

Case studies can provide an effective way to examine issues related to how society responds to the promise or threat of technological change—whether by adopting new technologies or curtailing the use of existing ones. However, teachers must be careful to avoid turning the case studies into occasions for promoting a particular point of view. People tend to hold very strong opinions on the use of technologies. The teacher's job is not to provide students with the "right" answers about technology but to see to it that students know what questions to ask. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 56.)


Refer students to the Risks and Benefits student esheet, which will direct them to Cell Phones and Driving to learn about how cell phones might be affecting safety on the road. The resource will pose the following questions, which should be discussed with the entire class:

  • Consider this statement: "Cell phones don't cause accidents. It's just that people who use cell phones a lot tend to be bad drivers." Does Sondhi's research support this claim? Why or why not?
  • Consider this statement: "People should be allowed to use only hands-free phones when driving." Does Sondhi's research support this claim? Why or why not?
  • Design an experiment that would test the effects of cell phones on driving further. What would you measure? How would you measure it? How would you check to see if either of the above arguments were valid?
  • Do you think there should be any laws regulating the use of cell phones while driving? How far should they go? What kind of evidence do you feel is necessary to justify these laws?


Using the Risks and Benefits student esheet, students should explore Risk Assessment Basics. This resource will guide students through these topics:

  • What is Risk?
  • What is Risk Assessment?
  • What are the Goals of Risk Assessment?
  • What is the Procedure for Performing a Risk Assessment?
  • How Do I Estimate Risk?
  • What is the Point of Doing a Risk Assessment?
  • What is Risk Management
  • How Do You Combine Risk Assessment with Risk Management?

Once students have finished exploring the above resource, they should continue using the student esheet to go to Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, which provides an analysis of the mechanical and administrative causes of the accident. As students read the resource, they should consider the risks and benefits of human spaceflight and how public perceptions of these may have changed after the Challenger accident.

Now that students have been exposed to some of the pros and cons of technology, give students 10 to 15 minutes to write down on a sheet of paper their thoughts to the following questions. Then discuss students' answers as a class. (There can be many correct answers to these questions. The goal of the questions is to stimulate critical and creative thinking in terms of technology. Some of the possible answers were taken from the Professors calculate monetary, statistical value of human life, an article on the Daily Princetonian website regarding monetary value of a human life.)

  • What are some causes of device failures and how can these be prevented? (Many examples of mechanical stress or design oversight should be mentioned. For example, the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion was caused by exhaust flames leaking through a booster rocket and into an external fuel tank. Several mechanical flaws—including blowholes forming in sealing putty, and O-ring erosion and rotation—caused this leakage itself. While the prevention of any of these flaws would have prevented the explosion, all mechanical flaws were independently corrected with redundant measures added—e.g., multiple O-rings, airtight adhesive in place of putty.)
  • Why are perfect (or near-perfect) systems seldom observed? (Costs are prohibitive, and near-perfect designs may be nearly impossible to implement in practice. Even if costs and material capabilities pose no problem, unintended consequences unobserved in testing may occur. Studies have calculated that the average person values his or her life at approximately $1.54 million, and so engineers knowingly accept that they cannot spend that amount of money on each technological advance so they accept imperfect designs.)
  • Why do some negative effects of technology cause a greater societal uproar than others, independent of the number of people affected or the severity of the consequence(s)? (Societal uproar is worse if: a negative outcome occurs instantaneously versus gradually; the perceived level of control is low over a negative event—e.g., people like to feel in control of circumstances; the shock value of the effect is high—e.g., a gruesome explosion will cause more uproar than chronic heart disease; the technology involves moral or ethical issues—e.g., personal convictions against genetically modified organisms would amplify one's response to an accident involving them; or society is not familiar with technology—e.g., a scientist or engineer might respond less severely to an accident than a less tech-savvy person.)
  • How does the non-scientist population view scientists and engineers? How does a non-scientist population view scientists' perception of their work? (Non-scientists can view scientists with a sense of awe or even trepidation. The "mad scientist" stereotype might cause non-scientists to assume scientists are all knowing about their field, or entirely benevolent in its technological implementation. In actuality, scientists discover and elucidate the laws of the universe and engineers harness them for human benefit, but neither can forecast all the consequences. Engineers in particular need to trade off costs and benefits in implementing a technology—the absence of risk is nonexistent.)


Using the Risks and Benefits esheet,  students should write a brief essay that explains the risks and benefits of one of these technologies:

  • Gene technology
  • Transgenic crops
  • Vaccines
  • Food irradiation
  • Internet
  • Heart drugs

Use the Risks and Benefits Essay Rubric to assess student essays.


H1N1 Flu: Are Parents Underestimating Risk to Kids? can be used to explore public perceptions of risks and benefits of science and technology.

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