Ethics Teaching in Undergraduate Engineering Education
Colby, Anne, Sullivan, William M., Journal of Engineering Education
This paper asks how undergraduate engineering education supports students' ethical development, broadly defined, in a diverse sample of U.S. engineering schools and offers an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of those efforts. The paper draws on observational case studies that were based on site visits to undergraduate mechanical and electrical engineering programs at seven universities or engineering schools in the U.S. It begins by proposing professional codes of ethics in engineering as a useful framework for thinking about the goals for student learning in the area of ethics and professional responsibility. The paper then discusses how and to what degree these goals are being addressed in the case study schools, with additional context provided through reference to published research in the field. The paper concludes with recommendations for strengthening the teaching of engineering ethics and professional responsibility.
Keywords: engineering ethics, engineering ethics codes, professional responsibility
In his 2000 plenary address to the National Academy of Engineering, President William Wulf emphasized the public purposes of the profession, its contribution to human welfare, and its meaning in the context of the contemporary world-the core commitments that define engineering as a profession (Wulf, 2000). Other central commitments of engineers as professionals include protection of public safety and the environment; integrity in negotiating multiple, often conflicting, loyalties; and other standards of honest and responsible practice. We use the terms engineering ethics and professional responsibility as roughly interchangeable to refer to this wide array of issues and behaviors.
This paper addresses the questions of how undergraduate engineering education does and, in our view, should support students' ethical development in this broad sense of the term. The paper draws on observational case studies of engineering education, offering descriptive accounts based on site visits at eleven undergraduate engineering programs at seven U.S. engineering schools. We do not report quantitative results because any perceived quantitative precision based on this kind of sample would be spurious. In cases where precise figures would make an important difference in understanding how best to strengthen the teaching of engineering ethics, we hope that our articulation of the issues will be a stimulus to such future quantitative research.
We begin by proposing that professional codes of ethics in engineering provide a useful framework for thinking about the goals for student learning in the area of ethics and professional responsibility. We then offer observations about how and to what the degree these goals are being addressed in the undergraduate engineering programs we studied, extrapolating to the larger national picture where possible based on published literature in the field. We conclude with a review of the strengths and weaknesses of these programs with regard to teaching for ethics and professional responsibility and some recommendations for strengthening education for ethical development in engineering.
II. ETHICS CODES AS A WAYTO FRAME THE GOALS OF EDUCATION FOR ETHICAL DEVELOPMENT
Among the learning outcomes specified as essential by ABET accreditation criteria are "an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility, broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context, recognition of the need for and ability to engage in life-long learning, and knowledge of contemporary issues" (ABET, 2007, pp. 1). The guidelines do not specify particular formulations of goals within these broad categories nor particular strategies to meet the requirements, except to say that there should be a general education component that complements the technical content of the curriculum. Taken collectively, codes of engineering ethics are consistent with these ABET outcomes but provide useful elaborations of ABETs more general reference to "professional and ethical responsibility. …