Academic journal article Technology and Engineering Teacher

Dodging Marshmallows: Simulations to Teach Ethics

Academic journal article Technology and Engineering Teacher

Dodging Marshmallows: Simulations to Teach Ethics

Article excerpt

"Being honest is hardest when you are in pressured situations. At those moments you have to have already made your decision to be honest," said one student, when reflecting on the simulation given the first day of a construction management class.

Students had just participated in an experiential learning exercise where they played dodgeball using marshmallows. But the unique context of the game introduced ethical dilemmas that integrated ethics education into a technical education classroom setting.

Research shows that "Engineering curriculum and activities at the K-12 level should be designed to expose students to [ethical considerations inherent in the practice of engineering], and as a result students should be aware of the importance of these issues in the field of engineering" (Moore, Glancy, Tank, Kersten, Smith, & Stohlmann,

2014). But how do STEM teachers teach students to think about ethical issues and their role in their future careers? In this article we describe how this whole-class simulation provided a forum for students to experience simulated ethical challenges while exploring principles foundational to STEM careers.


In Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA/ ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007), Standard 4-J (grade level 9-12) outlines how students should develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of STEM careers and specifically how ethics should be used in technology fields. But teaching ethics in STEM courses proves challenging because the focus is often on prescriptive ethics (what should be done) versus the descriptive side (what is being done). Using a fun simulation like the one described here can help students realize what decisions they are making and let them observe their own actions as well as the actions of others in a low-risk setting. It also allows STEM students to plan, adjust their plans to solve problems, and learn the importance of effective communication, which supports standards 2E, 2EE, 4F, 4J and 8A (Table 1).

Understanding the ethical implications of a specific job is key to successful work in industry settings. Among the indicators Moore, et. al. (2014) identified that comprise a quality K-12 engineering education, ethics and teamwork exist as concepts required for success. Ethical considerations include the use of natural and client resources, the safety of workers and the public, integrity in interactions with clients and the larger community, and product integrity. Similarly, teaching students the importance of teamwork involves cultivating skills such as listening to others, compromising, and recognizing and accepting different points of view; fostering collaboration; and providing opportunities to participate in varied roles on a team (Moore, et al., 2014, p. 6). However, teaching these abstract concepts, especially to young learners, often proves challenging.


Simulations represent a type of experiential learning designed to provide a realistic opportunity to transact with concepts (Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984). Simulations emphasize elements of real experiences, "which are most important in meeting educational objectives, emphasizing the aspects crucial to understandings, feelings, and insights" (Kachaturoff, 1978, p. 222). In this particular activity, we define simulations as learning experiences representative of potential situations or dilemmas students will face in their future work experience.

Both computer-based and face-to-face simulations are used in a variety of capacities in middle, high school, and university classrooms across content areas, but particularly in STEM classes. The use of simulations has been documented in molecular biology, physical sciences, biology, and construction (Akpan & Strayer, 2010; Nassar, 2002; Stieff, 2011).

Simulations have been used to teach business ethics, as well as to explore effects of natural selection, and to personalize conflicts. …

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