Tackling Ethical Challenges in Engineering

Project Team

Team profile by Reya Magan, Jess Edelson, Micalyn Struble, Christian Ferney, Ann Saterbak and Suzanne Shanahan


Many engineering design challenges contain thorny ethical dilemmas.  However, these issues are often not thoroughly considered, as technical considerations usually dominate instructional time.  Within Pratt’s new, required first-year engineering design course (EGR 101), students work in teams to learn the engineering design process and apply that process to solve an authentic, client-based project that is sourced from the community or from a partner at Duke.  The Bass team created educational material that scaffolds ethical considerations at four points along the engineering design process, thus weaving ethical considerations throughout a team’s engineering design process. These four educational modules include Systems Mapping, Perspectives on Pairwise Comparison Charts, Testing Your Tests, and the Game of Lifecycle.  These modules were refined, based on feedback from students in the spring 2020 EGR 101 course.  Beginning in fall 2020, all Pratt students will complete the four modules. This reframing of the engineering design process with an eye toward ethical challenges better prepares engineering students to tackle complex technical challenges.

Overview of Research Question

The main thrust of our project was to understand how ethics can be incorporated into a first-year engineering design course and to create curricular modules to achieve that goal.

Key Work Products

To familiarize all members with the engineering design process, the team applied the major steps of the design process in order answer the research question and generate the educational modules:

1. The team defined student learning outcomes regarding ethical considerations in EGR 101:

  • Understand the role individuals, institutions, governments, etc. play in ethical situations.
  • Identify ethical issues and/or dilemmas as they arise throughout the engineering design process. 
  • Make trade-offs in priorities with an acknowledgement of ethical issues.
  • Reflect on the consequences of design decisions, including turning points and trade-offs.

2. The team researched best practices to understand how other schools typically introduce ethics in first-year and design-focused courses. Often, ethics is “compartmentalized” as a set of case studies, which are taught out of sync with design projects.  

3. The team brainstormed various ideas for incorporating ethics directly into the regular rhythm of EGR 101. 

4. Four ethics modules for EGR 101 were collaboratively developed by the Bass team:

  • Systems Mapping:  Teams visualize the dynamics and interconnectedness of the systems in which their design will operate.  This exercise helps teams to understand how individuals and/or organizations are important in accomplishing goals; recognize the political, social, environmental, and economic realities that play a role in the project’s problem space; and identify tensions created by the project.
  • Perspectives on Pairwise Comparison Charts:  While simulating the role of an individual involved in the project, each team member ranks the design criteria. Then, the team must collaborate to reconcile differences in perspectives and priorities and create a team pairwise comparison chart, while staying “in character.”
  • Testing Your Tests:  The choice of who, how much, and under what conditions a team tests their product can significantly impact whether the design is scraped or given to the community.  This exercise explores whether the team has structured an ethical and rigorous testing plan. A Kahoot game accompanies this module.
  • Game of Lifecycle:  With one short activity for each stage of the product life cycle, this exercise is intended to have students reflect on their choice of materials, its cost of extraction from the environment, and how (or if) that material degrades.  For example, students write a poem or song as a eulogy for their product.

5. The team tested the modules in EGR 101 in Spring 2020.  The Bass team members participated as “ethical mentors” to facilitate team discussions.  Based on the implementation, edits were made to the modules to prepare for next semester.

6. Student’s ethical attitudes were evaluated with an instrument developed by Amber Diaz Pearson and Stacy Tantum at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester to assess the impact of the modules. These surveys will be used again in Fall 2020. 

Reflections on Team Successes and Challenges

Our team created four modules to enable the ethical development of the Engineering 101 students. Our team of three undergraduate students and three professors forced us to work highly collaboratively and equitably distribute the work necessary to design each module. We played to our individual strengths: students who took EGR 101 spoke authentically about their experiences, while those with ethics backgrounds added a deeper understanding of different modes of ethical thought. Our cohesion, driven by our small size and diverse academic backgrounds, ultimately led to our project’s success. 

Our team struggled to map traditional forms of philosophical thinking (like utilitarianism and consequentialism) to the engineering design process. We turned our focus to the ethical dilemmas relevant to individual stages of the design process. We only tested two modules with the current EGR 101 class because of the transition to online learning. We anticipate that assessment will be difficult as well, notably due to the uncertain lag between intervention and change in student attitudes.