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A Practitioner Account of Integrating Macro-ethics Discussion in an Engineering Design Class

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2018

Conference Session

Design and Making

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Ayush Gupta University of Maryland, College Park

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Ayush Gupta is Assistant Research Professor in Physics and Keystone Instructor in the A. J. Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland. Broadly speaking he is interested in modeling learning and reasoning processes. In particular, he is attracted to fine-grained models of learning (based in microgenetic analysis, or drawing on interaction analysis). He has been working on how learners' emotions are coupled with their conceptual and epistemological reasoning. He is also interested in developing models of the dynamics of categorizations (ontological) underlying students' reasoning in physics. Lately, he has been interested in engineering design thinking, how engineering students come to understand and practice design, and how engineering students think about ethics and social responsibility.

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With few exceptions, ethics education within STEM disciplines has mostly remained separate from courses that provide instruction in what is perceived as technical knowledge (Leydens & Lucena, 2016). This paradigm tacitly reinforces that science, engineering, and technology are value neutral and that ethical considerations arise from the manner of the technology’s use rather than in its design phase. Other researchers have shown that over 4 years of college, engineering students' sense of social responsibility and of seeing engineering as socially situated actually decreases (Cech, 2014). Historians have argued how this technocratic illusion is maintained by various institutional structures -- one of which is a separation of the content of science/engineering from their social practice (Slaton, 2015).

In response, some researchers have started documenting how human-centered design can be a site for learning how ethical considerations should inform engineering design right from the start (Kenny Feister, et al, 2016). Continuing in that vein, I will present a practitioner account of how responsive teaching (Robertson, Scherr, & Hammer, 2015) provided a window of opportunity for integrating social responsibility of engineers into a classroom discussion on technological solutions to enabling faster checkout in grocery stores. During the discussion, students took to pointing out the affordances and constraints of various ideas. This soon turned to include the social impact of some the ideas (who loses jobs, who gains jobs, who gets to shop, usability of technologies, etc.) and revisions to ideas to manage some of the challenges/shortcomings. As an discussion moderator, I was writing students’ ideas on the board with minimal editing, occasionally asking a clarifying question. Then one student raised her hand and asked, "Is it our job to worry about this? We are hired by the owner, shouldn't we look out for their economic interest?" In a moment of responsiveness, I turned over the question to the class that led to a 30-minute discussion on the macroethical social responsibility of engineers. As an instructor my original intent for this discussion was just to illustrate the power of divergent thinking for doing design. But this was tempered by a commitment to being responsive to the substance of students’ ideas and creating space in the classroom to pursue them. This lesson plan has evolved over five years, during which I have built the social responsibility prompt more explicitly in the curriculum. In the paper, I will discuss common student responses to the question of the scope of engineers’ social responsibility as it played out in my classroom, the evolution of the lesson plan over 5 years, and the how students’ responses have changed in response to the curriculum changes. I will also argue that there is a need to create greater opportunities for explicit discussion of engineering ethics within regular science and engineering courses in order to challenge the dominant paradigm that takes a technocratic stance, scaffold our STEM students in understanding the political implications of the nature of their work, and equip them with the tools to examine ideological underpinnings of their own reasoning structures and examine alternative ideologies.

References: Cech, E. A. (2014). Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education? Science, Technology & Human Values, 39(1), 42–72.

Kenny Feister, M., Zoltowski, C., Buzzanell, P., & Torres, D. (2016). Integrating Ethical Considerations In Design. Presented at the 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana: ASEE Conferences.

Leydens, J., & Lucena, J. (2016). Making the Invisible Visible: Integrating Engineering-for-Social-Justice Criteria in Humanities and Social Science Courses. ASEE Conferences.

Robertson, A. D., Scherr, R., & Hammer, D. (Eds.). (2015). Responsive Teaching in Science and Mathematics. New York: Rutledge.

Slaton, A. E. (2015). Meritocracy, Technocracy, Democracy: Understandings of Racial and Gender Equity in American Engineering Education. In S. H. Christensen, C. Didier, A. Jamison, M. Meganck, C. Mitcham, & B. Newberry (Eds.), International Perspectives on Engineering Education (pp. 171–189). Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from

Gupta, A. (2017, June), A Practitioner Account of Integrating Macro-ethics Discussion in an Engineering Design Class Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio.

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