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Ethics In Context, Ethics In Action: Getting Beyond The Individual Professional In Engineering Ethics Education

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Beyond Individual Ethics: Engineering in Context

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.570.1 - 13.570.18



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Paper Authors

author page

Donna Riley Smith College

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

Ethics in Context, Ethics in Action: Getting beyond the individual professional in engineering ethics education


A number of authors have challenged engineering ethics educators to incorporate elements of what may be called “macroethics,” “social ethics” or considerations related to the field of science and technology studies (STS) in engineering ethics curricula. To respond to this call effectively requires reform of both content and pedagogy. A new advanced course on engineering ethics uses readings from philosophy, science and technology studies, and feminist and postcolonial science studies to examine questions that necessarily challenge foundational assumptions of engineering, which not only underlie all of what scientists and engineers undertake in their work, but also require the active involvement of citizens outside of science and engineering. Students encounter new visions for science and engineering that integrate a variety of ethical considerations that mean to address critiques encountered throughout the course. Pedagogies of liberation are employed in order to accomplish three outcomes. First, classroom responsibility shifts echo the lessons learned from STS around engineers’ responsibility properly contextualized. Second, a focus on critical thinking and creativity stimulate critiques of the classroom learning process as well as approaches to course material and ethics problems. Third, an orientation toward praxis grounds theory in real communities that generate problems addressed by ethics approaches, resulting ultimately in transformative action in collaboration with the community of origin. This paper describes course objectives, content, and pedagogy, and presents specific innovations that shift responsibility, stimulate critical thinking, and create opportunities for students to engage in praxis. Results of assessment are discussed, with a focus on the scaffolding required to assist engineering students in adjusting to new content and methods.


As engineering has established itself as a profession, a defining and essential element of engineering education is professional ethics. Since 2000, the requirement to include ethics as part of an accredited degree has crystallized.1 However, now that more engineering curricula are taking ethics seriously, the question of what rightly belongs in an engineer’s ethics education is deservedly garnering more attention. Herkert2 offers a critique that typically, engineering ethics is thought of only in terms of “microethics” – the individual decision-making of the engineering professional. He reviews several calls made over the past three decades by scholars of engineering ethics to incorporate “macroethics” – which he defines as the ethics of broader collective and social decision-making about technology – as part of a complete engineering education. Indeed, the set of ethical problems that involve the collective action of engineers, or the collective action of society as a whole, are not commonly addressed in engineering curricula. To address macroethics takes ethics out of the arena of individual decision making and necessarily requires political and social analysis. To respond ethically to macroethics topics would require individual engineers to understand their organizational, cultural, and social contexts, and navigate these effectively, utilizing leadership and communication skills.

Riley, D. (2008, June), Ethics In Context, Ethics In Action: Getting Beyond The Individual Professional In Engineering Ethics Education Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3536

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