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GIFT: The Influence of Stakeholders in Ethical Decision Making

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2020 First-Year Engineering Experience


East Lansing, Michigan

Publication Date

July 26, 2020

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July 26, 2020

End Date

July 28, 2020

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Natalie C.T. Van Tyne P.E. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Orcid 16x16

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Natalie Van Tyne is an Associate Professor of Practice at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where she teaches first year engineering design as a foundation courses for Virginia Tech's undergraduate engineering degree programs. She holds bachelors and masters degrees from Rutgers University, Lehigh University and Colorado School of Mines, and studies best practices in pedagogy, learning strategies, reflective learning and critical thinking as aids to enhanced student learning.

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Students in first-year engineering design courses recognize that the purpose of their design is to solve a problem or meet a need for a new product or process. Therefore, their end user is a major stakeholder for their design. In our design courses, we emphasize that the end user is not the only stakeholder, but that the views of everyone who could be impacted by the new product or process should be addressed by the design and its implementation or manufacture. Stakeholder interests often extend beyond the technical domain and involve broader societal impacts. Conflicts in interests and motives among stakeholders make ill-structured and incompletely defined societal problems perplexing at best. Where are the solutions that used to be conveniently found in the back of a textbook? Instead, our students need to develop a problem solving process, based on the design model consisting of defining the problem, investigating its causes, conditions and constraints, brainstorming alternative solutions, and testing these solutions in view of problem specifications arising from causes, conditions and constraints in order to determine the optimal solution. Stakeholder interests often become part of product or process specifications, therefore, a similar problem solving process can be applied to the resolution of an ethical dilemma in engineering. We had designed an ethics-based exercise to help our students to identify stakeholder interests and apply them to the resolution of an ill-structured problem taken from the engineering workplace, involving a hypothetical software design firmed called Occidental Engineering. Stakeholders from both inside and outside the company were used to define the problem in greater detail provide additional specifications for its resolution. Students worked in teams, in class, to represent certain stakeholders and recommend a solution based on that stakeholder’s position, as they perceived it. Our latest version of this exercise combined stakeholder roles and interests with the application of four ethical frameworks for decision making: Deontology, Virtue Ethics, Consequentialism and Utilitarianism. How would each stakeholder recommend a solution under each of these four frameworks? Deontology is based on rules, such as the Code of Ethics for Engineers by the National Society for Professional Engineers or the codes of ethics published by engineering professional organizations. Under Virtue Ethics, individuals act in ways that reflect on their character, by using commonly accepted historical or societal norms of moral virtue. By contrast, Consequentialism is often described as a case where “the ends justify the means”, sometimes without regard for either rules or virtue. Finally, Utilitarianism is a framework for “greatest good for the greatest number”, or a form of cost-benefit analysis. This GIFT includes a matrix in which students can describe solutions to an ethical dilemma, as expressed by stakeholders under each of these four frameworks. Other frameworks can be used instead. This exercise can be given either in class or as a homework assignment. If used as a homework assignment, students can also share their results with the rest of the class after submitting their responses. Would a stakeholder’s response change under any of these frameworks?

Van Tyne, N. C. (2020, July), GIFT: The Influence of Stakeholders in Ethical Decision Making Paper presented at 2020 First-Year Engineering Experience, East Lansing, Michigan.

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