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Teaching Engineering Ethics

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.940.1 - 6.940.11

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Bruce Perlman

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Roli Varma

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

Session 2793

Teaching Engineering Ethics

Bruce Perlman, Roli Varma

University of New Mexico, Albuquerque


There is general agreement that engineering students should receive ethics instruction as a part of their undergraduate education. However, there are diverse opinions on how engineering ethics instruction should be carried out. Philosophy of ethics, the original approach, emphasizes normative ideals and abstract principles. The new case studies approach focuses on a number of real and hypothetical cases. This article shows that teaching one approach or the other does not help students become ethical professionals. It suggests bridging the gap between ethical theory and cases by teaching ethical dilemmas and issues that are likely to be encountered in daily professional life.

I. Introduction

Since the late 1970’s, ethics has been increasingly emphasized in engineering curricula. Many programs have introduced elective courses in engineering ethics, whereas others have incorporated modules on engineering ethics in professional ethics courses or included them in technology and society courses. Moreover, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) 2000 engineering criteria requests engineering programs to incorporate ethics and ethical considerations in their educational objectives

There are at least two good reasons for this growth industry in ethics. First, there is a general agreement that the social and ethical issues arising within the engineering profession must be learned like any other form of knowledge. Future engineers can only become reflective practitioners by understanding the consequences of their professional activities on the health and welfare of the public. Second, though learning an engineering code of ethics that holds paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public is a start, it cannot alone be an adequate guide to practical action. In their daily practice, engineers regularly face the ambiguities and conflicts found among the dictates of technical knowledge, the necessity for capital, and the demands of labor.

Unfortunately, there does not exist an ethics rulebook with hard and fast "do’s and don'ts" which engineers could be taught to follow. Instead, students need to learn to use analytical tools and apply them to experiences necessary for judging the appropriateness of various actions and decisions in their professional life. This requires bridging a gap between abstract ethical theory and rules (including codes of ethics), on the one hand, and case studies, on the other hand.

Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright  2001, American Society for Engineering Education

Perlman, B., & Varma, R. (2001, June), Teaching Engineering Ethics Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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