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A Review of Ethics Cases: Gaps in the Engineering Curriculum

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session - Ethics in the Engineering Curriculum

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Chris Swan Tufts University Orcid 16x16

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Chris Swan is Dean of Undergraduate Education for the School of Engineering and an associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at Tufts University. He has additional appointments in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at Tufts. His current engineering education research interests focus on community engagement, service-based projects and examining whether an entrepreneurial mindset can be used to further engineering education innovations. He also does research on the development of reuse strategies for waste materials.

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Alexandra Kulich Tufts University

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Reece Wallace Tufts University

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A literature search concerning ethics in engineering from 1970 through August of 2018 yielded 171 case studies. One hundred fifty-four cases were gathered from National Society of Professional Engineer’s (NSPE) Board of Ethical Review (BER). An additional 17, non-BER cases were extracted from several databases. Only cases that presented a clear violation of the NSPE Code of Ethics were analyzed. The cases were arranged based on date and engineering discipline. Each case was then sorted based on the specific code violations present. These code violations were then analyzed to see if they fell within one of the three main branches of ethical theory: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Additionally, 108 articles and conference papers on engineering ethics education in institutions of higher learning were reviewed and yielded 41 publications that can be sorted based on the same three branches of ethical theory.

The findings show that while engineering ethics education emphasizes utilitarianism and deontology significantly more than other ethical theories, the code violations fall almost entirely under rule-based deontology. The results also demonstrate noticeable shift over time in the focus of the case studies, as a possible result in changes in the Code of Ethics. As indicated by the reviewed articles, there now appears to be more of a focus on more generalized, macroethical “best practices,” and less on specific microethical dilemmas.

The Code of Ethics in engineering is often seen as an introductory element for ethics education. However, the Code can be seen as a narrow expression of ethics; one that is mostly in the vein of personal or microethics and follows a more deontological theory framework. Additionally, continual revisions in a Code of Ethics over time provides no clear, consensus-based guidelines for ethics education. Perhaps better inter-professional collaboration with other disciplines is needed to identify the critical ethical variables that can be espoused continually in engineering education.

Swan, C., & Kulich, A., & Wallace, R. (2019, June), A Review of Ethics Cases: Gaps in the Engineering Curriculum Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--31988

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