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A Graduate Level Course: “Societal And Ethical Implications Of Nanotechnology"

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Moral Development, Engineering Pedagogy and Ethics Instruction

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.48.1 - 11.48.14



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Paper Authors

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Kirsty Mills University of New Mexico

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

A Graduate Level Ethics Course: “Societal and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology” A. Introduction Since ABET 2000, ethics training has become an established component of science and engineering undergraduate education, serving to prepare students in the fundamentals of professional practice within their chosen field. It is largely absent, however, in doctoral engineering programs1. This is of particular concern in the area of nanotechnology, which is largely being taught as a specialty in graduate programs. This paper describes a unique new course in the societal and ethical issues of nanotechnology that addresses this need.

Students who undertake graduate engineering training can find that the conduct of research poses ethical challenges that go beyond the norms of professional practice and engineering ethics with which they are familiar. Nanotechnology’s dramatically interdisciplinary nature makes it particularly important that students who specialize in this area be trained to appreciate ethical issues beyond the confines of basic engineering ethics. A student trained in electrical engineering, who goes on to specialize in nanotechnology, may undertake research developing, for example, nano-sensors that will be implanted in human subjects; he or she will need new skills to appreciate the broader implications of such research -- for instance, its potential privacy implications for individuals and society. In addition, many research students in the United States are from cultures with significantly different approaches to ethical issues, which can pose added challenges in the face of dilemmas created by the development of disruptive technologies. These and other students can also enter nanotechnology programs with backgrounds in non-engineering disciplines, in which they have not been required to undergo any training in ethics.

One can speculate further that this new era of technology, characterized by a high degree of uncertainty2, will require a different emphasis in ethics education. The approach of preventing wrongdoing by providing training in professional comportment becomes problematic when change is so rapid, and scope so large, that there are few specific standards or processes to convey. Today engineering ethics is still largely taught on the basis that engineering is a profession.3 This may prove to be less than adequate in the case of nanotechnology. For example, a student with an excellent grounding in professional engineering practice could nonetheless find herself inadequately prepared to face the ethical challenges of a project using quantum dot technology to investigate human consciousness. The complexity, scope, and rate of change of nanotechnology is such that reliance on established practice will only go so far in addressing the novel issues encountered.4

This presentation describes a new graduate-level ethics course at the University of New Mexico, “Societal and Ethical Issues in Nanotechnology”, which prepares students for this rapidly evolving, multidisciplinary environment. First taught in the Fall semester of 2005, it is a core course on a new Nanoscience and Microsystems Curriculum, and attracts students from both the School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Science.

B. Goals This course is designed to help students to develop an awareness of the multiple issues they will meet in their careers, and a capacity for critical analysis of ethical and societal dilemmas. It

Mills, K. (2006, June), A Graduate Level Course: “Societal And Ethical Implications Of Nanotechnology" Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--361

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