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How To Teach An Engineering Ethics Course With Case Studies

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Novel Methods in Engineering Ethics

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.657.1 - 15.657.9



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Paper Authors

author page

Carlos Bertha U.S. Air Force Academy

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

How to Teach an Engineering Ethics Course with Case Studies


I believe it is fairly clear that case studies are useful for teaching engineering ethics. This is because case studies have a way to bring abstract concepts (philosophical ethics) into the practical realm: actual or made-up cases that involve engineers. But there are good ways to use case studies and then there are bad ways to use them. In this presentation, I hope to make some modest recommendations regarding what goes into using case studies properly. First, however, I will briefly address how an engineering ethics course that uses cases studies should be taught. I intend to discuss topics such as the need to cover philosophical ethics first, the use of non- engineering case studies, and the benefits of bringing in a philosopher to help with this portion of the course. Then I will make some suggestions regarding the way individual case studies should be used in class, addressing topics such as how to prepare for the use of a case study, how to present them case in class, what to discuss (and what not to), etc. By way of introduction to this presentation, I will use a humorous movie clip to illustrate how case studies sometimes go awry. My talk will be helpful to those who are currently teaching engineering ethics courses (as it may help them fine-tune the delivery of their cases studies) as well as those who are contemplating teaching such a course in the future (as it will provide them with a suggested format to put together their syllabus).


Consider the following movie clip, where the main character, Brian, finds himself in a tight spot.

[Show 3-minute clip from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” In this clip, Brian falls—literally— into a situation where he has to preach to some bystanders. He starts telling a parable and his audience keeps interrupting him because they want more details (asking questions like “What kind of birds were they?” and “What were the servants’ names?”). Brian is stumped: he is trying to make a moral point, yet cannot get to it because he is compelled to supply unnecessary details.]

What happened in this vignette? Brian finds himself having to tell a parable. “There was this man who had two servants,” says Brian. Obviously he wants to tell a story to illustrate a moral point. “What were their names?” asks one of the bystanders listening to Brian. Brian in turn is confused by the question and waffles. What purpose would it serve to know the servants’ names? “It doesn’t matter,” says Brian, “the point is…” and he is interrupted again: “What do you mean ‘it doesn’t matter’?” Brian never gets to the point of the story.

Bertha, C. (2010, June), How To Teach An Engineering Ethics Course With Case Studies Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16501

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