Skip to main content

Exemplary Programs for Engineering Ethics Education Highlighted

A new report published by the National Academies Press provides examples of exceptional programs and activities focusing on the ethical development of engineers. The National Academy of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society Advisory Group and the Infusing Ethics Selection Committee undertook this project to create a resource for higher education institutions that wish to pursue similar activities. The report describes 25 programs, chosen from a pool of submissions. Submitters hailed from a variety of institutions across the United States and represented a variety of program types, including undergraduate and graduate courses, multiyear programs, and extracurricular activities. Each chosen program shows special success in developing the ethics education of engineering students. Members of the selection committee chose these programs based on how well they exhibited one or more characteristics from a selection criteria list. These characteristics ranged from emphasizing innovation and creativity to the support of ethics training through institutional faculty reward.

Across the 25 programs and activities, three themes appear. These are the use of case-studies to frame discussion, an emphasis on contextualization, and incorporation of the student’s own professional experiences into educational activity. In many of the programs described, case-studies form the backbone of the syllabus. Recognized as a “best practice” in professional ethics education, the case-study enables understanding of specific ethical challenges as they occur in real-world circumstances. [1] The use of case-studies supports the second theme of contextualization. In these programs, students discussing case-studies often take on the roles of specific characters in the case and must make mock decisions from that point of view. This ensures the student considers all elements of the case and recognizes the social context that surrounds engineering issues. Additionally, some of the programs include conversation with affected communities. Stanford University’s “Global Engineers’ Education Course” includes a weekly Skype session with community members in rural India, providing an opportunity to understand how engineering for underserved communities plays out in the lives of real people. [2]

The third theme draws upon students’ professional experiences, fostering discussion of ethical issues that students may have already encountered. As noted in one program description, “practicing engineers report that their training in [ethics and social responsibility] occurs at work, rather than in their undergraduate study.” [3] By providing space to reflect on ethical dilemmas that may have already been encountered, these programs connect the students’ education with their practical experience in cooperative education activities, internships, or research positions. [4]

Though these themes appeared in many of the programs, unique and innovative approaches are also highlighted in the report. Submitters were invited to add comments regarding challenges they faced in implementing ethics programs and provide suggestions to overcome these challenges, which include lack of interest from students, faculty resistance, and disagreement on what topics are most important. A follow-up workshop hosted by the National Academy of Engineering in 2016 will provide a forum for educators to address these challenges and develop plans for the effective implementation of ethics in engineering education.

The full report can be downloaded at the National Academies Press website:

[1] Center for Engineering Ethics and Society; Infusing Ethics Selection Committee; National Academy of Engineering. Infusing Ethics into the Development of Engineers: Exemplary Education Activities and Programs National Academies Press, 2016, 13, 15.
[2] Ibid., 30.
[3] Ibid., 26.
[4] Ibid., 17. 

View Full Report