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Ethical Development Through the Use of Fiction in a Project-based Engineering Program

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Innovating Ethics Curriculum and Instruction

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Rob Sleezer Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Rob Sleezer earned his Ph.D. in Microelectronics-Photonics from the University of Arkansas. He attended Oklahoma State University where he graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science and an M.S. and B.S. in Electrical Engineering. He is currently a faculty member at Twin Cities Engineering which is in the department of Integrated Engineering at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

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Rebecca A. Bates Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Rebecca A. Bates received the Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington. She also received the M.T.S. degree from Harvard Divinity School. She is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Integrated Engineering program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, home of the Iron Range, Twin Cities and Bell Engineering programs.

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Developing a sense of ethics through experience can be a time consuming and costly endeavor. Real life experience requires resources such as time and money, not to mention that developing a sense of ethics in a real world situation may have catastrophic consequences. This is why it is common for the study of ethics to rely on case studies which can be analyzed with guidance and potential consequences of possible actions can be assessed in safe settings. This analysis often lacks urgency, decision making pressure, or emotional content because of the distance between the situation (real or imagined) and the current experience of students. Literature can provide broader vicarious experiences, which can serve as a shared “sandbox” in which to formulate a moral framework distinct from the high-cost setting of real life. The character development and growth inherent in the art form provide a rich contextual experience that allows readers to connect to the story, emotions and decisions of the characters. When appropriately chosen, science fiction has the additional advantage of forcing readers to peer into the future and consider what might be.

This paper presents a case study of a required common read assignment in an upper division seminar connected to an engineering project design experience. During one semester, all participants read, reflected on, and discussed Prey by Michael Crichton with a focus on ethics and contemporary issues. (Other novels used in this setting include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and Neuromancer by William Gibson.) The novel was broken into three sections and at the end of each section students were required to submit a written reflection that addressed four points: what was read, what was learned from the reading, how that learning will apply in the future, and identification of potential related learning. Analysis of the reflection journals, taken as qualitative data, allows us to explore the development of ethical understanding based on fiction in upper-division students. Additionally, the student engineers wrote reflections on ethical issues related to capstone equivalent design projects. These reflections provide a window into the transference of the ethical frameworks developed through reading, discussing, and writing about fiction to real world applications in sponsored design projects. Analysis and findings will be presented along with faculty reflection on the process of incorporating fiction in an engineering class.

Sleezer, R., & Bates, R. A. (2020, June), Ethical Development Through the Use of Fiction in a Project-based Engineering Program Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34586

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