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Teaching Engineering Students How to Recognize and Analyze Ethical Scenarios

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Innovative Approaches to Ethics Instruction

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Vivian Liang Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Vivian Liang is an undergraduate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute studying Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering.

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Zach Jasensky Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Melvin Moore III

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Jake Francis Rogers


Geoff Pfeifer Worcester Polytechic Institute

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Geoff Pfeifer is Assistant Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He teaches and publishes in the areas of social and political philosophy, applied ethics, and global justice. His work has appeared in Human Studies, The European Legacy, and The Journal of Global Ethics. He is also the author of a number of book chapters as well as The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek (Routledge, 2015). Additionally he is co-editor of Phenomenology and the Political (Roman and Littlefield International, forthcoming, 2016).

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Kristen Billiar Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Kris Billiar is Professor and Head of Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell and an M.S.E. and Ph.D. in Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research interests are soft tissue mechanics and mechanobiology. Dr. Billiar is a Fellow of both ASME and AIMBE and a member of ASEE.

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It is generally accepted that ethics education is important for engineers, yet many engineering programs do not contain sufficient training in ethics integrated into their curricula (Stephan, 1999). Lack of ethics exposure in the context of engineering problems can leave students undervaluing the significance of ethics in their future professional decisions (Heitman, 2007). Incorporating ethics into engineering curricula is hindered by a lack of resources and infrastructure. Furthermore, engineering professors may lack the professional training to teach ethics. The aim of this project was to develop a system of ethics modules that could easily be integrated into engineering courses by engineering and/or philosophy professors. Over the course of two years, two different teams developed tools for teaching ethics and integrated ethics modules into the engineering curriculum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The first project aimed to develop a guide for engineering faculty to facilitate exposure to ethics in their courses. A point/counterpoint assignment and a heuristics assignment were both presented to two senior engineering classes, then student feedback was collected and analyzed. The point /counterpoint assignment consisted of a case study in which the students would argue for and against a particular ethical view. The heuristics assignment contained a set of directions that would help the students identify and find a solution for an ethical dilemma. Each assignment was worth a small portion of the final course grade to maximize student participation. A survey demonstrated that many students gained an appreciation for the complexity of ethical decision making and approximately 80% indicated that they would use the heuristics analysis in the future. The first project concluded with a compilation of resources for implementing such ethics assignments into an engineering course.

The second project focused on a joint-venture approach, in which an ethics professor would give a guest lecture in an engineering course. Ethics modules were developed which consisted of a case study, a point/counterpoint assignment, a guest lecture, and a heuristics assignment. The modules were implemented into three engineering courses at the freshman, sophomore, and senior level. Case studies were adjusted to compensate for the class level, while the ethics components were integrated throughout the duration of the technical course. The ethics guest lecture served to highlight the importance of ethics, and to aid the students in applying ethical theories to the case study. Professors indicated that the ethics modules were easy to incorporate without taking too much time from engineering content, and 90.5% of the participating students agreed that the ethics guest lecture was helpful in understanding the ethical material. The majority of students also stated that they would like to see similar ethics modules in future engineering courses.

With further studies, a more efficient ethics program may be developed, possibly including an online portion and resources allocated for professors of ethics. Provided with such resources, engineering professors may be more prone to include such an implementation of ethics into their classes, and as a result further promote the ethical education of students.

Liang, V., & Jasensky, Z., & Moore, M., & Rogers, J. F., & Pfeifer, G., & Billiar, K. (2016, June), Teaching Engineering Students How to Recognize and Analyze Ethical Scenarios Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26028

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