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An Ethics Case Study for Engineering Technology Students

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

ET Pedagogy II

Tagged Division

Engineering Technology

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Barbara L. Christe State University of New York

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Barbara Christe is a professor and the Dean of the School of Engineering Technology at Farmingdale State College, recently arriving on Long Island after 20 years at Purdue University in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a clinical engineer with degrees in biomedical engineering, she has authored several books exploring the branch of engineering technology that supports the safe and effective use of medical equipment in the clinical setting. In addition, Dr Christe’s research has explored the experiences of STEM learners in an effort to understand persistence and to support academic success. Her goal to promote degree attainment, especially by under-represented learners, including women, is well-matched to the Farmingdale campus mission.

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Integral to student development, the exploration of ethical principles is deeply connected to both ABET student outcomes and professionalism. Case studies can serve as an impactful tool to support cognitive and personal growth prior to student graduation. While engineering technology ethical case studies exist, most have a discipline-specific focus. In contrast, the Prism case study can prompt a rare discussion of the right to express positions regarding sexual identity in an engineering context. This case study is designed to illustrate how professional and ethical standards relate to real life situations. In 2013, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Prism published a letter to the editor from Wayne Helmer, professor of mechanical engineering in Arkansas, offering the “truth about the homosexual /lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender lifestyle” and questioning whether diversity should be celebrated. The published material and subsequent responses offer students a context-based debate about the clash between statements of policy, opinion, intolerance, and bigotry. Using primary documents as a research base, students will be led through a case study analysis of the publications, responses, and debate that surrounded Dr. Helmer’s statements. The ASEE Statement on Diversity will be incorporated as a lens through which students can evaluate the decision of Norman Fortenberry, executive director of ASEE, to publish the letter.

The sequence of events offers students the opportunity to explore the case with a chronological approach. To begin, the case study will explore the initial published pieces in ASEE Prism related to diversity. Then Helmer’s letter to the editor will be considered and analyzed within the constructs of personal opinion, tolerance, and civility. Next, students will review the documents associated with the Prism discussion related to Dr Helmer’s submission that consumed almost six months of debate. Finally, public commentary associated with the letter will be explored.

The decision to publish an opinion piece in ASEE Prism characterizing LGBT engineers in negative ways offers engineering technology students the opportunity to explore the concepts of free expression and civility within the engineering domain. Prompts for writing exercises or discussion promote an exploration of ethical themes. With an emphasis on the decision to publish in contrast to an analysis of the arguments, students can view the complex facets of ethical constructs and professional identity.

Components of the case study include an instructor’s guide, recommended materials for students, and a student packet. The student handout includes a synopsis of the ASEE Prism articles and discussion prompts. An annotated bibliography offers additional resources for students and faculty.

Christe, B. L. (2020, June), An Ethics Case Study for Engineering Technology Students Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34118

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