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Framing Engineering Ethics Education with Pragmatism and Care: A Proposal

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session 4

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Indira Nair Carnegie Mellon University

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Indira Nair retired from Carnegie Mellon University after 32 years. For the last 12 of those years, she was the vice provost for education and a professor in the department of engineering and public policy. She has designed and taught several interdisciplinary courses, including the ethics of science and technology, environmental science, technology and decision-making, and radiation, health, and policy. Her research has ranged over risk assessment and communication, green design, bioelectromagnetics, education in general, and pedagogy for modern-day literacy, such as scientific, environmental, and global literacy.

Dr. Nair chaired the national Global Learning Leadership Council of the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) from 2010 to 2013 and is currently a member of the Global Advisory Committee. She is also on the advisory panel of the Center for Engineering, Ethics & Society (CEES) of the National Academy of Engineering. She advises several universities and colleges on incorporating global and environmental literacy throughout the curriculum. She has served on numerous national committees including National Science Foundation's Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE) and on the Division of Education and Human Resources Advisory Committee (EHR), the Educators Advisory Panel of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Board of Student Pugwash USA. She has been involved in K-12 education and served as a member of the Board of the Pittsburgh Regional Center for Science Teachers, the School Reform Task Force of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, helping design the Science and Technology High School, the founding Boards of two charter schools –City High and the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, and on the Winchester Thurston Advisory Board. She is co-author of a book, Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants, (Temple University Press, 1997).

She founded the Carnegie Mellon Chapter of Student Pugwash to encourage students to think about the social responsibility of science and technology.
Her current quests and involvements include: a new scheme for general education including the new literacies; pedagogies for engineering ethics education; increasing the inclusion of under-represented minorities across all segments of education; improving K-12 STEM education and bioelectromagnetics. She holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Northwestern University and a Pennsylvania teachers Certificate for high school science teaching.

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William M. Bulleit Michigan Technological University

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Dr. Bulleit received his Bachelors of Science in Civil Engineering from Purdue University in 1974 and his MSCE from Purdue in 1975. He then worked for Perry Oceanographics, Inc. in Riveria Beach, Florida for a year and a half designing manned and unmanned submersibles. He received his PhD in Engineering Science from Washington State University in 1980 doing work in wood engineering. After completing his PhD, he went to work at HNTB in Bellevue, Washington designing bridges and working on the design of a large-diameter, soft-earth tunnel. In November 1981, he left HNTB to accept an assistant professor appointment at Michigan Technological University. He has remained at Michigan Tech since then, becoming a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in June of 1993. He was CEE Department chair from July 2008 to July 2011.

Dr. Bulleit teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in structural engineering. He received the University Distinguished Teaching Award for an Assistant Professor in 1986 and was one of top five candidates for the Distinguished Teaching Award for an Associate Professor or Professor in 1996, 1997, and 2014. He has been involved in a wide range of research in structural engineering, including reinforcement of wood materials, reliability of wood members and wood structural systems, design of traditional timber frame structures, development of structural design code criteria, and computational intelligence. Much of his research and teaching has considered the need for engineers to make decisions under uncertainty, and it was this portion of his work that led to an interest in philosophy and other nontechnical aspects of engineering. He has published over 100 technical papers. Dr. Bulleit is also the co-author of a textbook with Dr. Sheryl Sorby entitled, An Engineer’s Guide to Technical Communication, published in 2006 and subsequently translated into Dutch, and he was the editor of a book published by ASCE entitled Classic Wood Structures.

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This paper considers the philosophical principles of pragmatism and the ethic of care as a broad framework for integrating ethics in undergraduate engineering. We propose an approach to integrate ethics into the teaching of engineering that accommodates the realities in which engineering operates and can bring up ethical considerations naturally. Increasingly engineering educators have been looking for ways to bring multiple affective perspectives smoothly into classroom and field practices of the student experience. Engineering is about working within external constraints and engineering practice is based on a way of thinking that is not applied science, but rather an evolving set of heuristics toward better design. Bulleit (2015) calls this the “engineering way of thinking” (EWT). A usable framework of engineering ethics should complement this, and include microethics, the engineer’s individual responsibility and macroethics, which deals with the collective responsibility of the profession (Herkert 2001). Schmidt (2013) proposed an ethical framework based on virtue ethics that addresses “what engineers do, how they do it, and why it matters”. Pantazidou and Nair (1999) articulated how the ethics of care fits naturally within the process of engineering design. Kardon (2015) examined how the legal definition of “standard of care” fits with engineering practice. Bulleit (2017) explored the similarities between engineering and pragmatism to show how pragmatism fits with the EWT. A combination of two American-born philosophical worldviews – Care and Pragmatism - provides flexibility and openness to address professional ethics realistically within the ethos and culture of engineering. Care and pragmatism are both systems for action and practice. They embed values into practice, promote reflective thinking, are cognizant of the context, and emphasize the need for thinking about the practical consequences of an action. Because of this, they are open in definition and are flexible, aspects that are hard to navigate in the current ways of teaching the issues in engineering ethics, based on traditional philosophical frameworks.

As engineered systems become more complex, determining whether a decision is ethical becomes problematic due to the extreme uncertainty about the future. Furthermore, the decisions being made affect the future, but so do other events out of the control of the designer, and some of those events may be produced by the system being built. Whether a decision is ethical is particularly problematic in the design of large-scale engineered systems, including complex and complex adaptive systems such as social-technological-natural systems like the earth.

This paper reviews recent work and asks how care and pragmatism can articulate and contribute to addressing thorny problems– simple and complex, local and global-- that engineers face. We review recent empirical work on the ethics of care and the role of empathy in engineering. Campbell (2013) asked how engineering “professors can teach students to care”. Other work (Walther et al. 2012; Hess et al. 2014) has begun to build a background of how we could begin this integration. We suggest that these approaches are more consonant with design approaches and hence familiar to engineering faculty. Engineering ethics can then integrate seamlessly into engineering education.

Nair, I., & Bulleit, W. M. (2018, June), Framing Engineering Ethics Education with Pragmatism and Care: A Proposal Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30537

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