Undergraduate Education in Practical Ethics: A general plan plus sample assignments for engineering students using materials from the Online Ethics Center
Author(s): Caroline Whitbeck
- Ethics Education in Freshmen Orientation
- 100-Level Courses, Especially First-Semester Freshman Classes
- Topics for First-and Second-Year Students
- Active Learning about professional responsibility for freshmen and sophomores
- Model active learning assignment on professional responsibility for engineering
- Other Topics Suitable for First and Second Year Students
- Topics in Courses for Juniors and Seniors
- Preparing Students for Their Co-ops and Coaching Them As Ethical Problems Arise
- Ethics Projects for Seniors
This essay recommends what is called a "hands on," "practice-oriented," "experiential," or "active" learning approach to ethics education. The active learning exercises should be chosen so that over the course of their undergraduate career students engage in developing a full range of ethical skills. These include not only making judgments about whether some action is ethical, or which of a set of multiple choices is the best (or least bad), but skills such as the ability to:
- Find statements of ethical standards by reputable bodies and evaluate the legitimacy of those standards
- Conduct an ongoing assessment of a problem in a way that does not cause unnecessary harm (e.g., destroy a person's reputation)
- Recognize explanations other than the one that appears most likely
- Fashion responses that will be robust in the sense that they will be wise, even if the situation turns out to be other than the one that seemed most plausible
- Recognize when the moral territory is unfamiliar and locate good advice about how to proceed and the likely effects of doing so
For more detailed information on active learning methods that teach a full range of skills for moral problem solving, see "Moral Agents and Moral Problems ". (That this essay was selected for reprinting by the National Student Pugwash, shows student enthusiasm for these methods.)
Active learning materials are featured in the Online Ethics Center (OEC). Active learning methods were featured in pedagogical presentations in the March 1999 International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science held at Case. The conference papers describing these methods are available in the OEC.
Other valuable methods are already used in those disciplines in the humanities and social science that regularly include ethics in their subject matter. Ethics has sometimes been well incorporated into capstone courses in engineering design. The present proposal is not meant to displace either such existing disciplinary courses that treat ethics in depth, or ethics education that already incorporated into engineering courses.
A. Freshman Orientation:
As of Fall 2000 the first day of Freshman Orientation at Case featured skits depicting predicaments of college life with President Auston in attendance. These challenge students to think through their actions in a range of situations, from responding to a student who has passed out after drinking, to deciding what kinds of help they may use in doing their assignments. The conversation about the moral responsibilities in an academic community and academic honesty as a value central to the practices of acquiring, augmenting, and transmitting knowledge began here, as it should, at the beginning of orientation. The uniformity of the expectation on students and faculty alike to fully acknowledging all sources and aids used in one's work began at this point.
B. 100-Level Courses, Especially First-Semester Freshman Classes
Orientation to the university as a center of learning and research, and introduction to the practices that define a research university and the centrality of academic integrity to those practices should continue in 100-level courses. In these courses, upper-class students as well as first-year students are introduced to disciplines. They need to learn not only the methods of creation and discovery used in those disciplines, but also the standards for evaluating and crediting contributions made in the given discipline, and the reasons behind the differing standards of behavior required for maintaining academic integrity in different disciplines.
By beginning with an emphasis on crediting sources, faculty can create an atmosphere in which students can safely bring to light the sources they do in fact use. The appropriateness of that use can then be examined. When students see that the careful reporting of data and full citation of sources are expectations of mature as well as apprentice scholars and investigators, they understand what a research community is, and what their full participation requires. This sets academic honesty in a very different light than when students see it as obedience to a set of arbitrary rules set down by faculty to make easier the faculty's evaluation task. (In contrast, rules such as those against studying exams from previous years foster the negative impression that rules about academic honesty have no moral justification.) Understanding that academic integrity is continuous with research integrity works to prevent what Case's recent Academic Integrity Survey shows are the most common serious departures from academic honesty, namely, fabricating or falsifying data on lab reports, failing to properly credit sources and copying others' lab reports.
Students need to understand the criteria for fair use of sources in each new discipline they enter, because what is common knowledge or original work is field-dependent. For example, copying another's word choice and phrasing has a significance in writing poetry that it does not have in writing research reports, and copying another's data has significance in reporting research that it does not have in writing science fiction.
C. Topics for First- and Second-Year Students
Practical problems of being and becoming university students often absorb first- and second-year students, especially those in engineering and computer science. Only the precocious among them think often about life after graduation. Therefore, most first and second year students are most easily engaged in moral reflection and problem-solving that is closely related to matters close to their college experience.
Those enrolled in professional programs, such as nursing, engineering, and accounting, can be encouraged to consider what it is to choose a profession, and the particular responsibilities, temptations and moral pitfalls that attend the one they have chosen. They are faced with present decisions, such as what major to choose and whether to join the Case student chapter of their professional society with which to connect an elementary consideration of professional ethics.
Those in pre-professional programs or those who have plans to go into other professions, such as teaching, have a similar immediate interest in the choice they are making in a pre-professional program or major and its implications for their lives. The OEC contains a cross-section of codes of ethics in science-based professions.
Even those students who pursue a liberal education with no thought of career preparation, face questions of forming realistic expectations and deciding when and whom to trust as they become independent adults. They are often most interested, for example, in what they can expect in dealings with health care practitioners or teachers. Such discussions should deal with the responsibilities of students or patients (e.g., the patient's responsibility to provide the practitioner with complete and accurate information) as well as their rights.
C.1 Active Learning about Professional Responsibility by First and Second Year Students
Rather than simply studying a code, a more engaging active learning approach begins with discussion of brief open-ended (what-shall-we-do?) problem situations that might arise in the profession in question. During the class session, have the students discuss how they might address the problem. For follow-up homework, assign the students to see what the provisions of the relevant professional society's code of ethics would have to say about the situation or the responses they have proposed. It is often a good idea to assign students to work in groups on this question, or to respond to one another's responses.
Those teaching students in engineering and the applied sciences cases may want to make use of a collection of open-ended discussion cases (cases that ask what should be done). These open-ended cases are based on other closed-ended cases (cases that ask only how given actions should be judged). . These open-ended cases are based on other closed-ended cases (cases that ask only how given actions should be judged). Those closed-ended judgment cases were constructed by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). The NSPE Board of Ethical Review (BER) applied the then current version of the NSPE Code of Ethics to the case to judge the ethical acceptability of the actions of the engineer(s) in the case. Each discussion case on the OEC Web site has a link to the corresponding NSPE BER case and the BER's judgment on it. Beginning with cases that students must grapple with and teaching principles in relation to those cases is an essential feature of active or experiential learning. Students find this approach more interesting than trying to read the code or even a code and a judgment that applies it without first trying to cope with the kinds of situations that the code seeks to address. It helps them understand:
- Why codes of ethics mention only certain ethically significant actions, and not all the moral rules that would apply to their member's actions (The codes focus on matters related to the responsibilities and temptations specific to a their profession.)
- That the ethical considerations they themselves bring forward are not always the same as those that the professional societies consider, but may nonetheless be valid.
- That professional societies are concerned not only with responsibility for the public good, but with promoting cooperation and goodwill among members of their profession.
These discoveries help students not only understand codes, but to evaluate whether and when the provisions within a code of ethics have ethical justification.
C.2. Model Active learning assignment on professional responsibility for engineering and science students (for whom the need is greatest):
In class: Present students with one of the research or safety cases best suited to your class topic research ethics or safety cases. (If the class is a large one, use small groups, in which case schedule time for each group to briefly report to the whole class). Also, discuss:
For homework assign students to:
- Read the current code of ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers. Compare it to one of the other codes in the Codes Section of the Online Ethics Center closest to your own discipline.
- Write a brief discussion (100-200 words) of the NSPE's Board of Ethical Review (BER) in the case that is linked at the bottom of the safety case considered in class. State where you agree, where you disagree with their judgment, and why. Send it by email to the instructor by 9 am before the next class along with discussions of the two NSPE BER cases that correspond to the discussion cases above.
For further reading:
D. Other Topics Suitable for First and Second Year Students
- The moral standards that apply to university life
- The responsibilities of citizens
- What is the good life or "the good" for people?
- How can one respect others with different values without falling into ethical subjectivism
- Voting, driving, responsible drinking
- Ethical question about personal life and values and conduct with friends and family, including both the personal and policy dimensions of birth and death
- Laboratory safety, highway safety, consumer safety, and human interdependence
- Ethics in the news items: There are, unfortunately, always news stories officials brought up on ethics charges or cited for conflict of interest. See Glossary entry for "Conflict of Interest"
Sample discussion problem: Is it a conflict of interest for faculty members to hire students in their courses for clerical jobs? For baby sitting or yard work in their homes? For research assistance?
If any of these do create conflicts of interest, would it be acceptable for students who were already employed in any job that was problematic above subsequently to enroll in the employing faculty member's course? Why or why not?
E. Topics in Courses for Juniors and Seniors
For juniors and seniors, life after graduation takes on more reality, especially when they have internships, summer jobs, and volunteer experiences with potential future employers and other first hand experiences of that life. The ability to evaluate the moral climate of the organizations they will enter after graduation becomes more important to them, especially as they realize how different from their undergraduate life the work world and graduate school may be. Online resources for this activity include:
Ethical Guidelines for Employers and Employees on ethical behavior in:
- Professional Development
- Termination and Transfer
- Guidelines for Raising Ethical Concerns
- Issues in the Responsible Conduct of Research
Active learning assignments on professional responsibility for science and engineering students
Science and engineering faculty members can find and freely adopt course-tested assignments from the course assignment list for PHIL304/404, Science and Engineering Ethics. (I request that if you are a member of the Case faculty and you use some of these materials, you inform me of which assignments you will be using by sending me email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the course name and estimated enrollment for your class. If a significant number of students are likely to take both courses, I can then replace the assignment you use with another one in my course.) The topics and assignments in Science and Engineering Ethics increase in difficulty and sophistication over the span of the semester. Therefore, faculty members are advised not to give freshmen and sophomores those assignments that come at the end of the course.
F. Preparing Students for Their Co-ops and Coaching them as Ethical Problems Arise
A committee composed of interested and experienced faculty and former co-op students could work with Deborah Fatica to provide for on-the-job ethics coaching (on the model of the Ethics Help-Line of the Online Ethics Center).
Other resources for (and some currently used by) the Co-op Program include:
- An ethics game widely used in major corporations that reveals many expectations of well functioning corporations (but with varying amounts of explanation and justification of those policies).
- Thoughtful advice on ethical conduct from the Ethics Office of a major corporation.
G. Ethics Projects for Seniors
Ethics projects would make a useful capstone experience in ethics for those students not already assigned to do one. In such projects students develop brief descriptions of an ethically significant open-ended problem situation of interest to them. Students may work individually or in small teams. Each student takes his, her, or the team's problem to people who have knowledge and experience about how to respond in the student's chosen context (usually an employment or graduate or professional school context). Doing the project often builds the student's confidence about his or her ability to act on ethical convictions in the work or study situation that he or she plans to enter after graduation.
You may access detailed instructions for conducting such a project in a current 300/400 level course. A sampling of student reports from MIT and Case undergraduates and graduate students is also available in the Online Ethics Center.
- Using Materials from the Online Ethics Center for Engineering & Science in the Engineering Curriculum , a response to a request from Case's ABET Readiness Committee for a "handbook for dummies" on Engineering Ethics
- Course-tested online assignments from Science and Engineering Ethics The assignments at the beginning of the course may be used with students at any level, but those in the second half of the course should be used only with juniors, seniors, and graduate students.
Cite this page:
"Undergraduate Education in Practical Ethics: A general plan plus sample assignments for engineering students using materials from the Online Ethics Center"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Saturday, May 25, 2013