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Teaching Ethics in the Context of Engineering Courses: A Blended Approach of Theory and Practice

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Awareness, Expectations, and Recognition of Ethics

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Geoff Pfeifer Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Geoff Pfeifer is Associate 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 (Rowman and Littlefield International, 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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Engineering faculty are often at a loss for how to teach ethics to their students. They often do not feel as though they have the proper background and training in ethics education, and they are hard pressed to find time in their courses to teach ethics while also trying cover all of the technical content. Last year, a team of our students piloted a “joint-venture” approach to teaching ethics in engineering courses where philosophy faculty volunteered their time and expertise to give one-day ethics training to students combining philosophical ethical theories and application of these theories to case-studies closely connected to course content. Survey data indicated that this method was both effective and engaged students in ways that made them interested in further exploring ethics in relation to their future careers.

The problem with this method is that it relies on the good-will of philosophy faculty, as they are not paid for their time to construct lectures and teach. It also relies on availability of philosophy faculty for such guest-lectures so scalability is an issue. Philosophy faculty are also teaching their own classes and pursuing their own research agendas. To address this problem this year, a junior-level student team constructed and piloted a “blended” online and in-class approach. The team worked with philosophy faculty to create a series of videos in which they discuss and debate philosophical ethical theories. Students viewed these videos (~ 1hr), read a case study, and then engineering faculty led discussions of the case studies. In order to determine the effectiveness of the blended online method, classes were divided into two experimental groups. One group received guest lectures from philosophy faculty while the other group participated in the “blended” method. Students were surveyed to determine overall effectiveness in relation to student engagement and excitement. Over 350 students were surveyed from eight courses: four “blended” courses with online philosophy lectures and four control courses with philosophy faculty. With the online method, a significantly higher proportion of the students (79%) reported an increase in confidence in navigating ethical dilemmas compared the students in the control group (61%). Over 90% of the students reported that they could identify, analyze, and handle an ethical situations regardless of approach. A greater percentage of the students with the “blended” method were interested in having ethics incorporated into other engineering classes (87%) compared to the previous method (67%). These results support our hypothesis that a “blended” method is as effective in getting students to engage with and be interested in ethics as the “joint-venture” approach, while allowing for the possibility of easier scaling of the model without the requirement of philosophy faculty to lead each in-class discussion.

Pfeifer, G., & Billiar, K. (2017, June), Teaching Ethics in the Context of Engineering Courses: A Blended Approach of Theory and Practice Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28916

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