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Engaging First Year Students In Ethical Issues Via Star Trek

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

FPD3 -- Professional Issues for First-Year Courses

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.614.1 - 12.614.12



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Paper Authors

author page

Andrew Lau Pennsylvania State University

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

Engaging First-Year Students in Ethical Issues via Star Trek


This paper describes the First-Year Seminar (FYS), The Ethics of Star Trek, inspired by the book of the same name by Judith Barad and Ed Robertson. It has been taught for the past four years as one of about sixty different FYS’s offered by the College of Engineering. Since 1999, all new students must complete one of these one-credit courses as part of the university general education requirement. This specific course is relevant to ASEE members as it represents an engaging, fun, and well-liked way to help students develop their ethical reasoning and moral imaginations.

Even though set in the future where technological marvels abound, the characters of Star Trek and the aliens they encounter must still contend with ethical issues and problems that we face today. Do the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few? Is it ever right to violate the prime directive and interfere in another culture’s affairs? Are rational beings the only life-forms worthy of our consideration? How far from the Ferengi are we if money is always the bottom line? Is right and wrong dependent on your culture, or are there universal values?

The seminar explores ethical issues that arise in various episodes of Star Trek, from The Original Series with Captain James T. Kirk and company, through The Next Generation, with Captain Jean Luc Picard. Students learn how to methodically approach tough ethical decisions in their current lives as students, and in their future professional lives. This course helps them to identify, understand, and examine their moral values, and especially to plan actions that are consistent with these values. In group and class discussions, the class explores the current thinking on the responsibilities of engineers to society, community, family, and themselves, as well as addressing issues that are relevant to their lives as students. Emphasis is placed on applying key concepts to realistic problems and on developing skills such as team work, argumentation, and communication skills.

Underpinning the biweekly viewing of Star Trek episodes, the course starts with a foundation in moral and ethical theory. The ethical issues faced by the Star Trek crews lead to consideration of similar situations faced by students and by engineers. Teams analyze and solve progressively more complex ethical cases in engineering and in general. The overall goal of the course is to assist students in developing their moral imaginations and thereby, to understand how to make the best choices in difficult circumstances.

The paper describes the course including the organization, weekly topics, cases, worksheets, activities, and feedback from students that have completed the course. In the author’s 23-year academic career, this course has been the most well-liked by students, who not only actively engage in the discussions, but report actually enjoying reading the book. By basing an

Lau, A. (2007, June), Engaging First Year Students In Ethical Issues Via Star Trek Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1786

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