Şirin Tekinay - George Mason University Due to her meritorious service to engineering education, Professor Şirin Tekinay, was…
Several authors in Engineering Ethics Education Research claim that that “The best way to teach engineering ethics is by using cases”. But why focus on the best way to teach engineering ethics, as if there is one particular approach that should be preferred to others? I have no doubt that case studies should be a part of engineering ethics teaching, but an over-reliance on a case study approach is likely to lead to an ethics curriculum that is flawed in many ways. Given these concerns, I strongly plea for a more nuanced way of using cases in Engineering Ethics Education. Cases can be a relevant part of the curriculum, but will always need to be put next to other methods.
Harris et al state that “The best way to teach engineering ethics is by using cases”. (Harris et al. 1996, p. 93) But this claim is essentially asserted, rather than supported with evidence or argument. They do state that “There is widespread agreement that the best way to teach engineering ethics is by using case studies.” (Harris et al. 1996, p. 94) Martin et al seem to support this point about agreement, stating that “Case Studies are the prevalent teaching method employed in engineering ethics”. However, they also state that “despite their popularity, there is little or no empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness compared to other teaching methods”. (Martin et al. 2019, p. 882)
More fundamentally, why focus on the best way to teach engineering ethics, as if there is one particular approach that should be preferred to others?
In other disciplines, it is taken for granted that there will be a range of activities: lectures, seminars, tutorials, set readings, written assessments and assessed presentations. In engineering ethics, there often seems to be an assumption that lectures aren’t appropriate, and the way to teach ethics is in the discussion of cases. In addition, ethics is often included in teaching, but not in assessment. Where this is the case, students are unlikely to read academic papers on ethics, and are unlikely to formulate their ideas in writing.
I have no doubt that case studies should be a part of engineering ethics teaching, but an over-reliance on a case study approach – particularly “within a micro-ethical frame, focused on describing individual dilemmas” (Martin et al. 2019, p. 882) – is likely to lead to an ethics curriculum that is flawed in many ways.
- Without taught content and/or set readings, it is likely to be lacking in substance and depth.
- It fails to reflect what research looks like in engineering ethics. Indeed, it fails to give any indication that research in engineering ethics is possible.
- It gives the impression that, when faced with challenging ethical issues, one simply needs to think about the issues, and discuss it with colleagues. While these are useful things to do, this is not the limit of what can be done.
- It is not likely to highlight the importance of reading good quality literature, whether in relation to relevant empirical details or the relevant ethical arguments.
- What does it mean to be a professional, and what are the implications for engineers?
- What is the state of the engineering profession (globally, or in a particular country)?
- How can the engineering profession in the UK be self-governing, if – as (Uff 2016) estimates – less than 15% of engineers are registered with a professional institution? (Can engineering even be considered a profession?)
Given these concerns, I strongly argue for a more nuanced way of using cases in Engineering Ethics Education. Cases can be a relevant part of the curriculum, but should be supplemented with other teaching methods