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Teaching Ethical Theory and Practice to Engineering Students: Pre-Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Approaches

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Ethics, Mindfulness, and Reform During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Alexis Powe Nordin Mississippi State University

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Alexis Powe Nordin is an instructor in the Shackouls Technical Communication Program in Mississippi State University's Bagley College of Engineering. She is a member of ASEE and ASEE-SE and has taught university-level writing and communication courses since 2004.

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Amy K. Barton Mississippi State University

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Amy Barton is the coordinator of the Shackouls Technical Communication Program in the Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State University. She is also an instructor of technical writing. In 2013, she was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers for the Bagley College of Engineering. She is a member of the Southeastern Section of ASEE. Her research focuses on incorporating writing to learn strategies into courses across the curriculum.

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The history of ethical codes in engineering reveals a fluid definition of engineering as a profession and its role in society. In the early 1900s, engineering disciplines began adopting ethical codes, but these codes focused on technical proficiency and professional loyalty rather than public welfare. Direct recognition of social responsibility did not consistently appear in engineering ethical codes until the mid-twentieth century. Today, all engineering disciplines explicitly prioritize social responsibility in their first canon. Although studying these codes can help engineering students define their roles as members of a professional community, it is increasingly important for engineers to recognize the consequences of their work, both locally and in the global community. With a recognition that professional decisions are inexorably linked to complex social and policy issues, meaningful ethics instruction should stress this interconnectedness, requiring students to move beyond conceptual understanding and learn to apply ethical principles to real-world scenarios.

This paper describes two approaches used in a university-level technical writing course to teaching ethics in both theory and practice. The course is a core requirement for junior- and senior-level engineering students at Mississippi State University. Typically working in multi-disciplinary teams formed of undergraduate students from across 12 engineering and computing fields, emerging engineers taking the course complete an end-of-semester research paper and presentation on real-life engineering case studies. In both of these assignments, students explore the underlying ethical and communication concerns behind some of the world’s worst technical disasters.

The first instructional approach described requires collaborative pre-work, with student teams researching one of six randomly assigned ethical theories and teaching the material to their fellow classmates using a real-world case study previously introduced to the class. A large component of the activity is class engagement, requiring teams to foster discussion by using opinion-based and hypothetical prompts. Students are assigned to new teams as they begin to work on the end-of-semester research paper and presentation, choosing a new case of their own to dissect both technically and ethically before the class. They highlight macro- and micro-ethical concerns, drawing from specific examples of the real-life behavior and communication of the stakeholders involved.

The second approach, which involves more teacher-centered and independent pre-work, was adopted when the course format transitioned from face-to-face to hybrid due to COVID-19 restrictions. Students independently learn about six ethical theoretical frameworks, as well as various engineering professional societies’ codes of ethics, through pre-recorded lectures, reading materials, and a quiz. The end-of-semester research paper and presentation also differ from the first approach in that assigned teams collaborate on a theme—for example, engineering disasters that led to airplane failures—with each team member responsible for incorporating a unique case study to support the overall theme and analyzing the case from a technical and ethical perspective.

Under the second approach, students were more likely to incorporate at least one professional engineering organization’s code of ethics and more likely to incorporate at least one ethical theoretical framework into their paper and presentation. In reflecting on these results, the authors speculate that students might have gained broader knowledge through the second approach, perhaps giving them more confidence in incorporating ethical theories into their case study analyses. Future work includes researching why students incorporated particular types of support in their assignments and how they rate their own understanding of the ethical theoretical frameworks and codes of ethics introduced in class.

Nordin, A. P., & Barton, A. K. (2021, July), Teaching Ethical Theory and Practice to Engineering Students: Pre-Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Approaches Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37810

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015