Ethics across the Curriculum
PREPARING ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE FACULTY TO INTRODUCE ETHICS INTO THEIR TEACHING
Illinois Institute of Technology
Emerging technologies have been in the forefront of attention since I began teaching and doing research on engineering ethics in late 1976. At that time, the subject was nuclear power and engineers’ responsibilities in designing, maintaining, and regulating nuclear power plants. Later, our attention was captured by ethics and responsibility in agricultural biotechnology, even though this field does not clearly count as an engineering specialty. Today, emerging uses of information technologies generate ethical issues, for example, protecting human subjects in online research. Ethical issues generated by burgeoning developments in nanoscience and nanotechnology are just coming into view.
But my direct concern here is not with emerging technologies. My focus is on preparing engineering and science faculty to introduce ethics into their teaching. An important aim of teaching ethics is to prepare engineering students to identify and cope responsibly with ethical issues in emerging technologies.
My plan is to describe the Ethics across the Curriculum Workshops, which are designed to prepare faculty to introduce ethics teaching into their regular courses. My colleague Michael Davis has conducted this program for engineering and science faculty at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) since 1991. Made possible by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the workshops were offered at first only to IIT faculty, but later they were also offered to faculty from other universities. In the 2002 and 2003 workshops, several faculty members from overseas were among the participants.
HISTORY OF THE PROJECT
The Ethics across the Curriculum Project was started in the late 1980s when two young, energetic research faculty members came to the Ethics Center concerned that something was missing from their teaching. They felt they should include more of the context and complexities of actual engineering problems and in so doing bring out their ethical aspects. They identified ethical issues associated with some of the topics in their courses they thought should be raised, but they did not know how to address these issues in their teaching.
In response to this call for help, I organized sack-lunch meetings of interested faculty to discuss options for addressing these concerns. After coming together regularly over a considerable period of time, faculty members agreed on the importance of teaching ethics in engineering. They also agreed that what kept them from teaching ethics was a lack of necessary skills and experience. In addition, they felt that teaching ethics would not be legitimate because it was not part of their graduate training. Yes, they knew something about ethics as members of society, but they knew about many things they did not feel prepared to teach.
With this insight, we set out to develop a program, and, working together, we devised a workshop plan. During our discussions, we had noted that in times past engineering educators had favored a diffusion method of teaching ethics. However, we had never seen a plan for a diffusion method that specified what faculty should do in their classrooms, how their teaching of ethics would be evaluated, or how student evaluations would feed back into the program, let alone how a program would be monitored to make sure that diffusion teaching was taking place.
We knew of some precedents, including workshops that had been tried at several other universities and one workshop on ethics for business educators at the old Arthur Anderson Company campus in St. Charles, Illinois. Reports by participants in those exercises indicated that they felt that they had learned a good deal—or at least had found the programs interesting. But they did not see how to connect what they had learned in the workshops with their teaching. Therefore, we thought it essential to adopt a nuts-and-bolts approach, that is, an approach likely to help faculty actually begin teaching ethics.
Our sack-lunch discussions eventually led to a proposal to NSF. It was gratifying to note that the first paragraphs of the proposal were written by one of the two colleagues who had approached us originally and prompted us to undertake our discussions. NSF funded the first proposal for four years, the first three years limited to IIT faculty and the last year for faculty from other institutions. Subsequent funding from NSF made it possible for us to conduct workshops for faculty from other institutions almost every year until the last workshop in the summer of 2003.
The funding covered not only the operation of the workshops and stipends
for the instructors, but also stipends for participants matched by stipends from the participants’ own institutions. The rationale for providing stipends for the 15 to 20 participants each year was to attract very able, busy people who had other interests competing for their time. The stipends underlined the importance of ethics and the honor of being accepted in the program.
Assumptions underlying the workshops were made explicit. First, ethics is not peripheral to, or an add-on to, engineering. It is integral to the practice of engineering, part of engineering problem solving. Safety and guarding against avoidable harm are built into engineering; they are the principles that underlie engineering codes and standards.
Second, engineering faculty should be engaged in the teaching of ethics. They not only have more exposure to students than ethics specialists and others in the humanities, but they also have the credibility to convey the importance of ethical considerations in problem solving. For many faculty members, learning to teach ethics is a feasible undertaking, provided they start with modest changes after suitable preparation.
For example, they might start with a problem in the back of the book that can be fleshed out, such as a problem concerning the flow of fluids. To make the problem less abstract, the fluids can be described as flowing into a reservoir. Providing information about the destination of the fluids and the nature of the fluids supplies context that is often absent from the problems students work on. Concrete details help bring ethical questions to the surface. This problem, for example, raises questions about whether the fluids are acceptable in a reservoir for drinking water.
I want to emphasize that we are talking about small changes. We believe that people can begin very modestly, and as they gain more confidence, more familiarity with the materials they can use, and more skills, they can do more. Explicit, thoughtful consideration of relevant ethical questions in a homework problem can be enough to engage students’ interest and open the way for a continuing focus on ethics.
Third, ethics material is a normal component of the course. This means that students should be held responsible for mastering this material, as they are for mastering other components of the course—through grading.
Each seven-day workshop included five days of lectures and discussions. The instructors played a prominent role in the first few days, but as the workshops proceeded, participants gradually moved to the fore. Participants some years back introduced an innovation, a role-play of a faculty senate meeting, that
has become an important component of the fifth workshop day. The lectures throughout the workshop were relatively short, and considerable time was allowed for discussion. The sixth and seventh days were usually held after a two-day interval over a weekend. On the sixth day, faculty participants did most of the work, presenting material they planned to use in their teaching, often a problem for homework or a class problem. After each presentation—an explanation of how the speaker planned to use the problem or assignment—the audience, including the instructor, raised questions and offered criticisms. Then the speaker responded. The atmosphere was much like that of a graduate seminar. On the seventh day, the participants brought in other examples of material they planned to use in teaching with explanations of how they planned to grade students’ responses. Again other participants and an instructor offered questions and comments, and the speaker responded.
In advance of the workshops, participants received assigned readings of selected articles and one book. The book, now in its fourth edition, The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels (McGraw Hill, 2002), turned out to be very useful. This slim volume is philosophically sound and covers the leading theories. Faculty participants seemed to find it interesting and readable.
Each workshop had two instructors. Michael Davis, the principal investigator and author of Thinking Like an Engineer (Oxford University Press, 1998), planned the program and served as lead instructor. Robert Ladenson, professor of philosophy in the Lewis Department of Humanities at IIT, and I alternated from year to year as the second instructor.
WORKSHOP: DAY ONE
Getting acquainted was the focus at the start of the first day. In the first lecture, Davis offered definitions of key concepts—prudence, morality, law, and ethics—to clarify major concepts in practical and professional ethics. For example, he defined morality as the standards everybody wants everybody else to conform to, so much so, that each of us is willing to follow those standards ourselves. In the discussion that followed the lecture, participants were invited to raise questions and offer counterexamples. The aim was to encourage careful use of familiar concepts and to convey to participants how much they already knew about ethics.
The second part of the morning was devoted to a well known case, “Catalyst B,” which was first published in a chemical engineering magazine in 1980. The discussion went forward without direction or guidelines. Participants simply read the case and began to talk about it in an unstructured discussion resembling a rap session.
The unguided discussion was followed by a presentation on method—what to look for, how to argue, and guidelines for discussion—a canonical set of seven steps (some variations include only five steps). These steps are essentially a
checklist for orderly discussion that drives to a conclusion, so that in the end one makes a judgment.
The presentation was followed by a second discussion of the case, this time against the background of the guidelines and some acquaintance with ways to argue. The second discussion was more controlled and orderly and led to a conclusion.
WORKSHOP: DAY TWO
On the second day, the focus was on moral theory. The aim was to acquaint the participants with various philosophical ethical theories. Participants could recognize the features of morality, such as consequences or duties, emphasized in a particular theory. They came to understand that, although theories cannot be used mechanically to analyze issues and resolve cases, exposure to the theoretical tradition in ethics is valuable, if only because it enables one to recognize when a student’s probing questions reveal an interest in theory.
We began with consequentialist theories, specifically utilitarianism. After a brief lecture describing the theory, we discussed a case (“New Software Case,” a short film produced by the Ethics Resource Center) focusing on utilitarian reasoning. This was followed by a short lecture on Kant’s rule-based ethical theory, with particular attention to some Kantian ideas, such as respect for persons. Respecting the inherent dignity of every human being means that people can never be “used” merely as means to an end. The discussion that followed highlighted Kantian reasoning in the “New Software Case.”
Finally, there was a short lecture covering a group of ethical theories: social justice; virtue theories; pluralism; relativism; and moral minimum. Another discussion of the same case brought out examples of reasoning according to each theory.
WORKSHOP: DAY THREE
The third day was focused on professionalism and professional ethics and introduced codes of ethics. Engineers have been especially active in producing both technical standards and ethical standards that make explicit the values and principles that underlie the technical standards. On this day, the group reconsidered the case from Day One, “Catalyst B,” this time with the emphasis on professionalism and the use of professional ethics codes in problem solving.
A brief lecture on context of professional work and strategies for identifying issues provided a bridge to a presentation on teaching ethics in the classroom. This session ended with a general discussion of various techniques to use in teaching: the case method; vignettes; role playing; debates; and “Ethics Bowl.”
“Ethics Bowl,” an engaging competition inspired by College Bowl and devised by Robert Ladenson at IIT, features open-ended questions about ethics
scenarios. “Ethics Bowl” has grown into a national competition for 40 institutions at the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.
WORKSHOP: DAY FOUR
Day four was devoted to both cognitive questions and moral questions about teaching ethics. For instance, some have questioned whether virtue can be taught, an old question first discussed by Plato. There is now a considerable literature providing good evidence that cognitive moral learning goes on in higher education, at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels. Moral learning is just part of the learning that goes on in institutions of higher education.
Participants also raised concerns about the ethics of teaching ethics. The risk of indoctrinating students was also a common concern. Clearly, teaching ethics should not become an occasion for promoting one’s own views. Yet there is a wide range of opinion about whether to what extent faculty are justified in injecting or revealing their own positions. At the same time, there is wide agreement that the classroom environment should make students feel comfortable about airing their own views. Allowing a variety of opinions to come out can give students an opportunity to note differences in assumptions and conclusions. That experience can prompt students to think through and assess their own positions.
It is essential to make explicit the goals of teaching any subject. Articulating the goals of teaching ethics can be helpful in responding to cognitive and moral concerns. As teachers in universities we aim to lead students to think. In teaching ethics, our goal is to stimulate thinking about ethical issues and to help students acquire analytical skills that will be useful to them as they consider ethical issues in their professional lives. The experience of sitting in a classroom with other students and an instructor intent upon resolving ethical problems may strengthen their resolve to behave responsibly. And strengthening that resolve is a legitimate goal of ethics teaching.
WORKSHOP: DAY FIVE
The fifth day was focused on pedagogy. Beginning in the second year of the workshops, the first half of the fifth morning was devoted to reports by two faculty members who had been through a workshop. Their accounts of their experiences—what they would do again, what mistakes they made—were helpful and encouraging to those just starting out. This was an important element of the nuts-and-bolts approach. Later in the morning, participants discussed typical assignments in their courses that they had brought in, with an eye to determining how they could be used as springboards for ethical discussion.
And finally, a high point of the workshop, was role playing. The entire group of participants enacted a meeting of a faculty senate at which they proposed that
the university institute an ethics-across-the-curriculum program. By this time, of course, they had become adept at mounting the arguments of naysayers, as well as at responding to those arguments. The faculty senate meeting provided an effective and enjoyable end to the program.
WORKSHOP: DAYS SIX AND SEVEN
On the last two days, the participants were divided into two groups of eight to ten in separate rooms. In these groups, they critiqued each other’s plans for teaching in the classroom. An instructor was present to ask questions and offer advice, but the participants did most of the talking. The seminar was another component of the nuts-and-bolts approach to help participants surmount the obstacles to introducing ethics.
On the seventh day, the participants made different presentations with new problems, homework assignments, or exam questions. This time, the emphasis was on grading. The discussion examined whether material was covered in the course, that is, whether it reflected what students had been exposed to and what they could reasonably be expected to understand. The grading was qualitative, a mode of assessment new to many of the participants. Therefore, they had to determine criteria for grading their students’ responses and decide how much credit should be awarded for each point and the percentage of the course grade for ethics assignments. The purpose of focusing on these details was to make sure that grading was done.
Workshop participants were required to send Michael Davis their evaluations and their students’ evaluations before they received the final portion of their stipends. Although this was a relatively small sum of money, this requirement helped bring in the evaluations.
Looking to the future, we are currently working at IIT on developing ethics courses and pilot ethics modules for graduate departments in engineering and science. The idea is to build ethics into graduate education in these fields so students will encounter ethics as an ordinary part of their graduate training. We hope that when they become faculty members themselves they will not need workshops such as these.
Davis, M. 1998. Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rachels, J. 2002. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.