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Learning to Listen: An Ethnographic Approach to Engineering Ethics Education

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

NSF Grantees' Poster Session

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.860.1 - 23.860.6



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Paper Authors


Yanna Lambrinidou Virginia Tech

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Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou is a medical ethnographer and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Virginia Tech. For the past 6 years, she has conducted research on the historic 2001-2004 Washington, DC lead-in-drinking-water contamination. This work exposed wrongdoing and unethical behavior on the part of local and federal government agencies. In 2010, Dr. Lambrinidou co-conceived and co-taught the new graduate level engineering ethics class “Engineering Ethics and the Public.” Her previous research focused on hospice and pediatric cancer care.

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Marc Edwards Virginia Tech

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Dr. Marc Edwards received his bachelor’s degree in Bio-Physics from SUNY Buffalo and an M.S./Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Washington. His M.S. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation won national awards from the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors and the Water Environment Federation. In 2004, Time Magazine dubbed Dr. Edwards the "Plumbing Professor” and listed him among the four most important “innovators” in water from around the world. The White House awarded him a Presidential Faculty Fellowship in 1996. In 1994, 1995, 2005 and 2011 Edwards received Outstanding Paper Awards in the Journal of American Waterworks Association and he received the H.P. Eddy Medal in 1990 for best research publication by the Water Pollution Control Federation (currently Water Environment Federation). He was later awarded the Walter Huber Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2003, the State of Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award in 2006, a MacArthur Fellowship from 2008 to 2012, the Praxis Award in Professional Ethics from Villanova University in 2010, and the IEEE Barus Award for Defending the Public Interest in 2012. His paper on lead poisoning of children in Washington D.C., due to elevated lead in drinking water, was judged the outstanding science paper in Environmental Science and Technology in 2010. Since 1995, undergraduate and graduate students advised by Dr. Edwards have won 23 nationally recognized awards for their research work on corrosion and water treatment. Dr. Edwards is currently the Charles Lunsford professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech, where he teaches courses in environmental engineering ethics and applied aquatic chemistry.

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Learning to Listen: An Ethnographic Approach to Engineering Ethics EducationYanna Lambrinidou, Virginia TechMarc Edwards, Virginia TechThis poster will feature a new, NSF-funded initiative to teach graduate engineering ethicsthrough the use of ethnographic research methods. The course is based on the premisethat if engineers and scientists are to be successful in improving the quality of life andsustainability of societies, they must remain deserving of the public trust by holding thepublic welfare paramount. We argue that engineers and scientists who are in activecommunication with their ultimate client, the too often “unseen” and “silent” public,enjoy access to a wealth of information that is essential to informed decision-making, andare more likely to earn the public’s trust. In contrast, engineers and scientists who arealienated from their public clients are more vulnerable to self-interest, self-delusion, andinstitutional pressures that contribute to unethical conduct and harmful decisions. Ourwork with recent cases of community exposures to toxic materials, has revealed adangerous and perhaps growing gap between engineers and scientists, on the one hand,and the publics they are supposed to serve, on the other.To attempt to bridge this gap, we have developed a 3-credit graduate course titled“Engineering Ethics and the Public.” The course emphasizes aspirational ethics, with afocus on engineers’ and scientists’ personal “story of themselves” in the context of theirrelationship to the public. To foster an approach to ethical dilemmas that helps studentssee themselves in society rather than apart from it, the course introduces a 3-dimensionalexploration of ethics that allows engagement with real-world cases not only cognitively,but also emotionally and interactively. This exploration places students in direct contactwith a community’s diverse stakeholders, and requires them to use ethnographicinterviewing to understand a case from their interviewee’s perspective. This lens allowsstudents to define and refine their own ethical values, and promotes a first-handunderstanding of principles embodied in professional codes of conduct, moral theories,and multidisciplinary studies of human behavior. Moreover, it offers students a clearunderstanding of the technical and moral relevance of the public’s experiences,knowledge, values, and needs.As part of this NSF-funded effort, we are developing four educational modules for use byother institutions. Topics are: 1) Witnessing wrongdoing and the obligation to preventharm, 2) Aspirational ethics and learning to listen, 3) Responsible conduct of research,and 4) Responsible conduct of practice. Both the course and the modules will beevaluated through pre- and post-instruction student questionnaires.Biographical Information:Yanna Lambrinidou is a medical ethnographer and Adjunct Assistant Professor in theDepartment of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Virginia Tech. In 2010, sheconceived and co-taught the new graduate level engineering ethics class “EngineeringEthics and the Public.” In 2011, she and her collaborators were awarded a 3-year grantfrom the Ethics Education in Science and Engineering (EESE) program of the NationalScience Foundation (NSF) for further development and national dissemination of thiscourse. She received her PhD and MA degrees in Folklore and Folklife at the Universityof Pennsylvania and a BA degree in psychology from Smith College.Marc A. Edwards is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and EnvironmentalEngineering at Virginia Tech. Edwards received the Praxis Award in Professional Ethicsin 2010, a MacArthur Fellowship 2008-2012, and the IEEE Barus Award for defendingthe public interest in 2012. He received his PhD and MS degrees in engineering from theUniversity of Washington and a BS in biophysics from the State University of New Yorkat Buffalo.

Lambrinidou, Y., & Edwards, M. (2013, June), Learning to Listen: An Ethnographic Approach to Engineering Ethics Education Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19874

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