Scaffolding Ethics: How to Integrate Ethics into Engineering Curricula (2019-2020)


Many engineering challenges contain thorny ethical considerations. Despite a strong emphasis by ABET (the organization that accredits engineering curricula) on ethics, ethical considerations are often secondary to the technical aspects of engineering curricula. In fact, ethics is rarely addressed in standard engineering disciplinary courses at Duke or elsewhere. While final-year design courses at Duke do address ethics, the last year of instruction is not soon enough.

The Pratt School of Engineering’s new first-year engineering design course (EGR 101) presents an exciting opportunity to consider the ethical impact new designs have on the world from the outset of students’ education. Because each team in EGR 101 works on an authentic client-based project that is sourced from the community or a partner at Duke, students must learn how to detect and understand normative trade-offs made at every stage of the design process. This reframing of the engineering design process with an eye toward ethical considerations will better prepare engineering students to tackle complex technical challenges.

Project Description

The main goal of this Bass Connections project is to develop a framework that can be used by first-year engineering design teams to address ethical considerations. To meet this goal, team members will tackle the following tasks:

  1. Define the student learning outcomes regarding ethical considerations within the engineering design process. All members of the team will learn the types of projects typically completed by EGR 101 teams. Learning outcomes must align with the engineering design process and encourage students to explore the ethical considerations of their unique project.
  2. Research best practices elsewhere to understand how schools across the country are introducing ethics in the first-year curriculum and across all design-focused courses (irrespective of level). Team members will research how other institutions are scaffolding ethics into their engineering programs, and will make this research available to members of the Duke community and beyond.
  3. Generate ideas for incorporating ethics into EGR 101. The team will consider both curricular and cocurricular structures for modules. Module types may include in-class activities, case studies, evening events and workshops. After evaluating all the ideas, the team will select one or two modules to pilot.
  4. Develop ethics modules for EGR 101. This activity will include developing curricular material (readings, case studies, in-class exercises, video modules, slides and talking points). These materials will be collaboratively developed and reflect a wide variety of perspectives.
  5. Implement the module(s) in EGR 101. Many team members will participate in the implementation as leaders and facilitators. Regardless of the modules selected, there will be many touch points in the implementation, rather than one “ethics day”.
  6. Assess the impact of the ethics modules. After researching survey tools appropriate for the intervention, the team will develop and implement an assessment strategy that captures the impact of the modules on the student learning outcomes.

Anticipated Outputs

Educational materials to be used by EGR 101 teams; paper for submission to American Society of Engineering Education conference; pilot project data; external grant proposals


Summer 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Summer 2019: Consult with key stakeholders at Duke to define student learning outcomes for ethics integration into EGR 101; identify national best practices for university engineering courses and on-the-job ethics training; begin module generation
  • Fall 2019: Develop modules for integrations into EGR 101; develop assessment tools
  • Spring 2020: Pilot interventions; write up initial findings; begin publishing results; begin external grant submission

Team Outputs to Date

Tackling Ethical Challenges in Engineering (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

Scaffolding Ethics: How to Integrate Ethics into Engineering Curricula

This Team in the News

Designing Ethics to Improve Lives

New Program at Duke to Embed Ethics in Engineering, Computer Science Education

How to Integrate Ethics into Engineering Curricula


Image: Engineering students test concrete beams during a lab class at Hudson Hall on March 26, 2009, by Megan Morr/Duke University

Engineering students test concrete beams during a lab class at Hudson Hall on March 26, 2009.

Team Leaders

  • Christian Ferney, Kenan Institute for Ethics
  • Ann Saterbak, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Jessica Edelson
  • Reya Magan
  • Micalyn Struble

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Nan Jokerst, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Wayne Norman, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy
  • Suzanne Shanahan, Kenan Institute for Ethics|Arts & Sciences-Sociology
  • David Toole, Divinity School