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Five Academy students in the Honors Program will compete as a team in this year’s National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB). This competition challenges students to discuss current, real-world situations involving ethical dilemmas. Chisimdi Nnabugwu, Zara Okoli, Avery Abraham, Julia Durbin, and Annabelle Thompson will participate in the regional competition on February 3 at Rice University in Houston, Texas. 

The National High School Ethics Bowl was formatted by Robert Ladeson in 1993 as a lesson plan for an ethics class he taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology, but the competition officially started in 2012 with co-founder, University of North Carolina’s Parr Center for Ethics and the Squire Family Foundation. The mission of this program is to promote respectful, supportive, and thorough conversations about ethics.

For the competition, the team of five will participate in discussions that require them to defend a position of whether a given situation is ethical in front of a panel of judges. The cases are provided in advance, and the team has been researching the details and preparing their claims in practice sessions. The competition is designed more as a collaborative discussion than a debate. In order to win, the girls will have to demonstrate not only that they have thought critically about the cases to develop well-informed claims but also that they have listened and responded respectfully to other ideas contributed in the discussion.

Team practices with Ms. Guillory during the first semester began with a reading of a case, followed by comments from each team member. As Julia explained team practices, “The team establishes each person’s stance on the scenario, and, without any specific order or assigned role, we provide input. Each case usually has three or four questions accompanying it, which we go through to refine our thinking. We cover two cases each practice, and we typically wrap up the first case when we can all agree enough to form a temporary claim like, ‘Yes, but only if,’ or, ‘No, but maybe if.’”

Zara elaborated, “Team practices have alerted us to the fact that there might be no correct answer to solve the dilemmas we are asked to consider, so we have to choose one based on our ethical knowledge while also exploring other possibilities and maintaining a moral point of view in the discourse.”

The team consists of two seniors from Nigeria and three juniors from Louisiana. According to Annabelle, “Because our team consists of girls with different backgrounds and perspectives, this strengthens our arguments because we all process the prompts differently. I have really enjoyed participating in the Ethics Bowl thus far, and it has widened my understanding of all topics. It taught me that everything is nuanced and nothing has a simple answer or solution.”

Since the cases are based on real-world issues, the students have been learning about many different topics that they may not otherwise have known about or considered. “This year we have researched topics from dietary restrictions in school lunches to nuclear weaponry,” explained Avery.

Julia appreciates the broad scope of topics this competition engages. She said, “My favorite part of the Honors Program is how I can research important and current topics. With Ethics Bowl, I can research topics extending from space travel to video games, and then I apply that information to work out whether an action is ethical.” 

“For example,” Julia continued, “in one case, we considered whether products of artificial intelligence should be subject to the same copyright protections that protect art. After discussion, we concluded that we could not debate what forms of art should be protected without first answering the question: ‘What is art?’ Generally, our research topics are very broad, which leads us to explore deeper topics we would not have thought of without hearing others’ opinions.”

Working to understand various perspectives and to acknowledge them ethically in responding to moral issues has been “a fun and rewarding experience” for Avery. She said, “ I have gained skills in team work and independent research along with the ability to think critically about current situations to build reasonable opinions. I have learned to understand the moral complexities in a variety of situations and take into consideration the dignity of people and how certain decisions impact others.”

Simdi has discovered some fundamental patterns in her study and discussion of the cases involving ethical dilemmas. She said, “Firstly, you never have all the details. A lot of times, we think that an answer is impossible to derive if all the variables are not present. Training for the NHSEB has shown me that it is rare to be presented with a case that neatly presents all variables. Unlike science, there is never only one right answer, and your first answer is the one most susceptible to change. Oftentimes, when I read a question pertaining to a case, I am so quick to give an answer that I believe is a no-brainer. However, following conversation with my teammates, my initial stance is often revised or changed entirely.”

Zara chose to participate in NHSEB because she plans to study international relations in college on the pre-law track. She said, “Ethics are especially important in the legal field where there is an air of distrust and suspicion surrounding lawyers. The knowledge I will gain through the process of this program acts as an important guide to ensure proper conduct in my future daily practice of the law.”

Annabelle is also using NHSEB as preparation for her future legal career. She explained, “This is a great opportunity to improve my public speaking skills while also learning how to formulate concrete, well thought out arguments. I want to go into the field of law and think that this opportunity is a great way to get experience in debate. I also think it is an unique way to work in a group setting by stating evidence-rooted claims, while also listening and appreciating others’ arguments.”

The debate aspect of the competition also appealed to Julia. She said, “Since our school does not have a speech and debate team, this is a great opportunity to have an academic discussion with like-minded peers to answer very current issues in the world. In previous years, my Honors research has gone toward proving one claim; however, with the Ethics Bowl competition, there are a variety of nuanced claims I can make because there is not one specific answer. Overall, I am most interested in the active and informed discourse I get to have by participating in the Ethics Bowl team.”

Simdi plans to enter the world of global politics and values the competition’s goal to encourage teams to work “towards a reasonable analysis or solution through a collaborative format.” Simdi continued, “By participating and training for this competition, I believe that I am training myself to participate collaboratively and constructively with my peers at the United Nations or fellow students in my comparative politics class to reach an ethical response toward any social dilemmas.”

For Avery, NHSEB is a way to build her college resume, but she is most eager “to harness the gifts this experience has given me.” She explained, “I believe that this experience will not only challenge me academically, but also make me empathetic to the complex situations around me. Ethics Bowl will help me to be a better student and, more importantly, a better person who can leave an impact on the world.”

According to Ms. Guillory, the girls are “a dream team,” and she anticipates that they will represent the school well at the regional competition. For Simdi, though, winning is not the only goal. For her, the most important thing is that the team finishes the project with stronger argumentative skills. “At the end of the day, if my teammates and I are able to have met the NHSEB goals for making meaningful arguments and are able to apply the lessons learnt from the competition to our daily discourse, then I will say we performed a job well done.”