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Ethics for First-year STEM: A Risk Assessment Based Approach

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.686.1 - 26.686.11



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Paper Authors


Tobias Rossmann Lafayette College Orcid 16x16

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Tobias Rossmann is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Lafayette College (Easton, PA). He received his PhD in 2002 from Stanford University. His research interests have focused on the development and application of advanced optical measurement technology to complex fluid flows, from micro-optical sensors to large reacting flowfields. He has received the 2011 Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award (SAE International), is a five-time winner of the Rutgers School of Engineering Excellence in Teaching Award, and is an Associate Fellow of the AIAA.

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Ethics for First-Year STEM: A Risk Assessment Based Approach This paper will detail the development of a first year seminar focused on the discussionof ethical issues in engineering for STEM students. The seminar course was intended to providea broad introduction to ethics through discussions and writing assignments focused on casestudies of engineering catastrophes, meeting once a week for ninety minutes, as well as engagestudents in college level critical thinking skills [1]. During  the  small  and  large  group  discussions,  the   class   explored   both   the   engineering   and   cultural   implications   of   both   recent   and   historical  disasters   with   examples   take   from   recent   and   historical   tragedies   [2].     The   initial   lecture   of   each  session   focused   on   what   engineering/human   factors   led   to   these   cataclysmic   events   and   how  engineering   development,   public   policy,   and   society   responded.   Early   discussions   also   covered  classical  ethical  frameworks  and  moral  decision-­‐making  (e.g.  Deontological,  Teleological,  Fairness,  Common  Good,  etc.)  [3].     During  the   early  discussions,  students  reported  high  levels  of  satisfaction  with  the  technical  descriptions   of   the   catastrophes   and   the   discussions   of   the   underlying   ethical   choices.   However,  students  found  it  difficult  to  create  a  personal  relationship  to  topics  and  desired  a  more  structured  (tiered)  framework  with  which  to  evaluate  potential  ethical  decisions.  Since  the  class  was  focused  on  engineering  catastrophes,  the  concepts  of  safety  and  acceptable  risk  were  omnipresent  and  used  as  the  framework  to  assess  larger  ethical  concepts.  With  additional  evaluative  tools  (uncertainty  in  engineering   design,   risk-­‐benefit   analyses,   quantification   of   personal/public   risk,   risk   perception),  students   found   a   greater   ability   to   personally   relate   to   complex   ethical   decisions   inherent   in   the  more   complicated   case   studies,   including   emergent   issues   with   significant   scientific   uncertainty  (such  as  the  environmental  impact  of  nanotechnology)  [4].  Using  these  tools,  their  discussions  and  papers  presented  a  more  nuanced  and  enlightened  approach  to  the  discussion  of  the  acceptability  of  risk.     Assessment  of  the  course  was  done  through  pre  and  post  surveys.  Students  reported  high  levels   of   satisfaction   with   the   class   discussions   (4.6),   their   ability   to   consider   multiple   sides   of   an  issue   (4.73),   and   their   engagement   (4.7).   On   average,   students’   understanding   of   ethical   concepts  increased   from   2.1   to   4.7,   and   their   ability   to   apply   risk   assessment   tools   to   ethical   problems  increased  from  1.6  to  4.4.      References: [1] Lau, A.S. (2004) “Teaching Engineering Ethics to First-Year College Students,” Science and Engineering Ethics 10: 359-368. [2] Chiles, J.R. (2001) Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology. New York: Harper Collins. [3] Martin, M. W., Schinzinger, R. (2005) Ethics in Engineering. Fourth Edition, Boston, MA: McGraw Hill. [4] Budinger, T.F., Budinger, M.D. (2006) Ethics of Emerging Technologies: Scientific Facts and Moral Challenges. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rossmann, T. (2015, June), Ethics for First-year STEM: A Risk Assessment Based Approach Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24023

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