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Science Fiction as an Entry Point for Ethical Frameworks in Engineering and Computer Science Education

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

New Media for Ethics Education

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Valerie H. Summet Rollins College

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Dr. Valerie Summet is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Rollins College, a liberal-arts school located in Winter Park, FL. Her research interests include human-computer interaction and CS education. She earned a BS in Computer Science from Duke University and an MS and PhD in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Rebecca A. Bates Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Rebecca A. Bates received the Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington. She also received the M.T.S. degree from Harvard Divinity School. She is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Integrated Engineering program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, home of the Iron Range, Twin Cities and Bell Engineering programs.

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Preparing students for ethical challenges in the course of their job responsibilities has been recognized as a priority by many professional organizations such as ACM, ABET, IEEE, NSPE, and other professional engineering societies. However, there has been debate about whether students should receive instruction from technical faculty or from faculty who have a background in ethics or philosophy. Some programs have a curriculum which includes a standalone ethics course required as part of a technical major. Others may require an ethics course taught outside of the technical program. However, if a university or program does not offer a standalone disciplinary course, meeting recommended ethics training for majors falls to individual faculty within engineering programs. Faculty must then include an ethics component in a technical course. Faculty in this situation often struggle with the need to cover technical content and conclude that it is difficult to include additional instruction on ethics. Faculty also often feel intimidated or unqualified to lead discussions of ethical dilemmas. Even when there are external courses, modeling thought and behavior within engineering by engineering faculty remains crucial for passing on the values of ethical thinking within the field.

Along with discussion of formal ethical frameworks, or even traditional engineering case studies, discussing nuanced, technical details in the context of an ethical dilemma brings additional depth and rigor to students’ burgeoning ethical awareness. However, sparking student engagement in critical ethical theories can be difficult. We argue that speculative fictional narratives can be used to increase student engagement during classes as well as engage diverse learning preferences. Additionally, fiction engages diverse student backgrounds by explicitly including a wide range of other fields such as history, literature and other humanities or social science disciplines.

Having established the importance of embedding ethics instruction into technical courses and the potential of fictional short stories as engaging instructional materials, we turn from the aspirational goals to the operational concerns. How can faculty incorporate ethics instruction via fiction into undergraduate courses which are usually reserved strictly for technical content? In this paper, we present a framework for structuring a single class period (50-75 minutes) around an ethical dilemma delivered via a short work of fiction. We also include three examples of this class structure applied to short stories about 1) the decision making process of autonomous vehicles, 2) artificial intelligence (AI) as a caretaker, and 3) destruction of the natural world and indigenous cultures in the name of technological progress. Each of these examples include a short story and a set of discussion questions which could also be used as writing prompts. These questions are designed to expose students to several of the major ethical frameworks including Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue Ethics. We include strategies and ideas for instructors who have little training in either formal ethics or managing class discussions about ethical topics. For instructors who wish to develop additional exercises, we include a resource list for further exploration of short stories, movies, and ethical frameworks.

Summet, V. H., & Bates, R. A. (2020, June), Science Fiction as an Entry Point for Ethical Frameworks in Engineering and Computer Science Education Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35180

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