Integrating Ethics Education at All Levels
ETHICS AS A CORE COMPETENCY
STEPHANIE J. BIRD
Science and Engineering Ethics
Engineering educators have historically believed they were only responsible for turning out technical experts. It was expected, to the extent that anyone thought about it, that engineers would pick up professional values and ethical standards and practices by observing good examples. Recently, however, the community has become aware of the need to address responsible, ethical behavior explicitly as part of engineering education. Recently revised requirements of the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) state that to achieve accredited status “engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility” (ABET, 2003). Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that engineering professionals are ethically, as well as technically, competent.
This recent attention to engineering ethics reflects, in part, the realities of engineering practice. In a survey of engineering students and practicing engineers, Robert McGinn found that 80 to 90 percent of the practicing engineers surveyed (n = 294) thought that “current engineering students [were] likely to encounter significant ethical issues in their future engineering practice.” In fact, 53 to 70 percent of these practicing engineers indicated that they themselves had either “faced … an ethical issue in the course of [their] engineering practice” or had known a fellow engineer who had. The majority of these engineers said that they wished they “had been better prepared … to deal thoughtfully and effectively with [that] issue.” As one might predict, more than 90 percent of the practicing engineers surveyed thought engineering students “should … be exposed during their formal engineering education to ethical issues of the sort that they may later encounter in their professional practice” (McGinn, 2003).
Knowledge of the ethical standards and values of the profession is a central and integral part of an engineer’s professional life. Engineers are expected to know and behave according to professional norms; they are judged not only by their colleagues and collaborators, who naturally evaluate their worthiness as members of the community, but also by the students and trainees they teach and mentor, by funders, such as the National Science Foundation, and by society in general. In short, there is more to being an engineering professional than simply being a technical expert (McGinn, 2003). Awareness of and respect for the professional values and standards of the community is a measure of one’s standing in that community.
Even though engineers are expected to act in accordance with standards and values, they are not generally taught them explicitly. Instead it is generally assumed that trainees and students will observe what senior professionals do and follow their example. Unfortunately, modeling of good behavior does not always happen, and even when it does, it may not be sufficient because learning from the behavior of another requires interpretation, which can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. Moreover, the rationale for any behavior, even exemplary behavior, is not always obvious, especially when problems are multifaceted and complex and choices must be made among competing interests and concerns. For these reasons, responsible and ethical engineering practices should be addressed explicitly. Faculty and senior members of the community are key participants in this discussion, not only because they have developed expectations regarding professional behavior, but also because they set the professional standards for the engineering community.
A central question, often asked, that raises a fundamental issue is whether or not ethics can be taught. Indeed, there is a widespread assumption that “All I need to know I learned in kindergarten.” But conflicts of interest, intellectual property rights, and the ownership of ideas are not commonly considered in elementary school. Fortunately, research has been done to address this question. James Rest, Muriel Bebeau, and their colleagues have shown that moral development continues at least until the end of formal education, reflecting, in part, a growing awareness and reevaluation of the individual’s role in society as he or she becomes a professional (Bebeau, 1991; Rest, 1986, 1988).
A primary goal in open discussions of responsible and ethical engineering practice is to increase awareness and knowledge of professional standards. In the course of examining issues of responsible behavior, a range of acceptable practices may be identified, that is, a continuum of behaviors, from preferred through acceptable, discouraged, and even prohibited practices. In the process, the underlying assumptions of acceptable practices are revealed, as are their immediate
and long-term implications. Additional goals include: (1) increasing awareness of the ethical dimensions of science and engineering; (2) providing students and trainees with experience in making and defending decisions about ethical issues; and (3) helping individuals develop strategies for addressing ethical issues and identifying resources to support decisions.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a requirement that all pre- and postdoctoral trainees funded by NIH be given formal training in conducting and reporting research responsibly. As educational programs were developed to meet these requirements, NIH identified six characteristics of effective programs: (1) required participation, which conveys the message that responsible behavior is considered essential to the profession; (2) interactive discussions that provide ample opportunities for students to think through problems and cases; (3) the participation of many faculty members and senior professionals, demonstrating that the community as a whole values responsible behavior; (4) a focus on topics relevant to the discipline; (5) programs that begin early in the curriculum and continue throughout graduate and postgraduate education, demonstrating that standards within the community continue to evolve and that, with experience, students and trainees become more sophisticated in addressing complex problems; and (6) reinforcement of professional standards and ethical values through a variety of programs and activities, including courses, laboratory meetings, and departmental seminars. The features identified by NIH for teaching research ethics can be helpful in the development of strategies for teaching engineering ethics.
There are a variety of ways to present engineering ethics, each with advantages and disadvantages. Courses provide a forum for presenting a coherent and comprehensive outline of ethical issues; courses can be marginalized, however, depending upon the level of faculty support in the department. The ethics-across-the-curriculum approach emphasizes ethical issues in all core courses, highlighting values inherent in the subject matter (Cruz and Frey, 2003; Weil, 2004). Unfortunately, faculty often feel that they do not have enough time to incorporate ethical issues and teaching modules into standard core courses. Furthermore, they often feel that they lack the expertise to raise ethical issues, although with experience, many feel more comfortable about including ethical concerns in formal classroom discussions (Cruz and Frey, 2003; Weil, 2004).
Team meetings, as well as informal discussions with advisors and mentors, can provide additional opportunities for exploring ethical issues. However, these are relatively variable, both in terms of the topics covered and the quality and depth of the discussion.
Workshops offer opportunities for detailed considerations of ethical issues that arise in the practice of the profession. Workshops can be held in the context of professional societies or in the workplace. “Engineering practice workshops” are an adaptation of “research practice seminars,” which have been held for about 10 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Participants in these seminars include junior and senior faculty, postdoctoral associates, research staff, graduate students, and undergraduates, all of whom engage in a dynamic conversation. The purpose of research practice seminars, and by extension workshops on engineering practices, is to provide a forum for faculty and senior professionals to discuss their expectations and their understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behavior in terms of specific situations and cases.
These workshops provide an opportunity for small-group mentoring, that is, for faculty and senior engineers and researchers to interact and discuss details of professional practice that are not normally covered in formal classes. Students and trainees can also express their concerns and discuss their experiences, giving the whole group a chance to identify and evaluate problems and issues and develop potential solutions. This can be informative and, ultimately, helpful for both faculty and senior professionals because the nature of the graduate and postgraduate experience may have changed significantly since “their day.”
Workshops also provide an opportunity for faculty and senior professionals to discuss ethical issues with their peers; these kinds of issues are rarely discussed elsewhere until serious problems develop. Moreover, although senior professionals often agree that a particular situation is problematic and assume that the best course of action is obvious, the “obvious” answer may differ from one individual to another as a result of differing backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Thus in interactive workshops, both senior and junior participants can not only explore strategies for dealing with complicated issues and learn which ones have worked in the past, they can also obtain feedback in a non-threatening, productive way.
The format of these workshops is fairly simple. The framework for examining the topic, including the primary concepts or points of contention, is presented first. This is followed by a case presentation of a real-life situation, sometimes accompanied by brief (three- to five-minute) presentations by a panel that includes a senior professional, a junior professional, a trainee, and a student, each of whom addresses an aspect of the scenario that seems significant from his or her perspective. The bulk of the workshop consists of discussions, either by the whole group or by small groups first led by a facilitator and followed by a moderated discussion by the whole group designed to harvest and critique the ideas of the small groups. In either case, the discussion usually reveals that there is more than one solution to an ethical problem—more than one acceptable solution and more than one unacceptable solution—and that the “good” solution varies with point of view.
Participants are encouraged to adopt the perspective of the “agent” rather than the “judge,” that is, to identify courses of action for each character as if they were that character and to examine the implications of each choice (Whitbeck, 1998). Participants are asked to make explicit the reasons they consider a particular course of action preferable or unacceptable. The general discussion is designed to critique these ideas and the analyses of their implications both for the individual and for the profession. At the end of the workshop, participants are given “A Checklist for Ethical Decision-Making,” a useful tool for evaluating and addressing ethical issues they might encounter in the future (see Appendix, p. 131).
The workshop format can be readily adapted not only for intra-institutional workshops and departmental seminars in any discipline, but also for meetings as part of the program of a professional society or as part of a team meeting or corporate workshop in the workplace.
Ethics as a Component of a Project
Another teaching strategy that emphasizes ethics as a core competency is to make it an explicit component of a project. For example, over the last three years we have incorporated ethics into a National Science Foundation-funded program, Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), for students interested in bioengineering (Hirsch et al., 2003). The central element of the REU ethics component is that each student identify an ethical aspect or implication of his or her summer project. The students discuss their projects and associated ethical concerns with other students, include a discussion of ethical issues in their presentations at the end of the summer, and most important, select one ethical issue or implication for an in-depth written discussion.
Students in the REU program have examined a wide range of topics, from the fair allocation of credit for contribution to a project to bias in communicating research results to the humane treatment of laboratory animals in teaching and research to limitations on computer access by those who are visually impaired and people in the developing world. The REU approach can be adapted to undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral thesis projects, as well as to discussions of projects in the workplace in team and group meetings.
Integrating ethics at all levels of education emphasizes to students and faculty that ethics is a core competency. Experience has shown that there are several characteristics of effective teaching of ethics:
Ethical issues must be addressed explicitly. Good role models are necessary but not sufficient for teaching ethical behavior and standards.
Participation by senior professionals and faculty is critical because they provide expertise and experience in the discussion of professional standards and values. In addition, they clarify their expectations, thus emphasizing the importance and legitimacy of professional values and ethical standards.
The most effective way to convey ethical practices is through interactive discussions of specific cases.
Students (and faculty and senior professionals) learn by identifying and discussing ethical issues that arise in their own projects.
Activities that are effective in an educational setting can be adapted for the workplace.
Explicit discussions of the responsible and ethical practice of engineering, the range of ethical issues, and the professional values and standards of the community constitute an acknowledgment of the complexity of ethical issues and the need to address them. Discussions of responsible and ethical conduct also reaffirm the responsibility of the community, individually and collectively, to address these issues as professionals.
ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). 2003. Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs (2003–2004). Baltimore, Md.: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
Bebeau, M. 1991. Can ethics be taught?: a look at the evidence. Journal of the American College of Dentists 58(1): 100–115.
Bird, S.J. 1993. Teaching Ethics in Science. Pp. 228-232 in Ethics, Values, and the Promise of Science. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: Sigma Xi.
Cruz, J.A., and W.J. Frey. 2003. An effective strategy for integrating ethics across the curriculum in engineering: an ABET 2000 challenge. Science and Engineering Ethics 9: 543–568.
Hirsch, P.L., S.J. Bird, and M. Davila. 2003. Enriching the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs) in biomedical engineering. Pp. 283–292 in Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition. Washington, D.C.: American Society for Engineering Education.
McGinn, R.E. 2003. “Mind the gaps”: an empirical approach to engineering ethics, 1997–2001. Science and Engineering Ethics 9: 517–542.
Rest, J.R. 1986. Moral Development in Young Adults. Pp. 92–111 in Adult Cognitive Development, edited by R.A. Mines and K.S. Kitchener. New York: Praeger.
Rest, J.R. 1988. Can Ethics Be Taught in Professional Schools?: The Psychological Research. Pp. 22–26 in Ethics: Easier Said Than Done. Marina del Ray, Calif.: Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics.
Swazey, J.P., and S.J. Bird. 1995. Teaching and learning research ethics. Professional Ethics 4: 155–178.
Velasquez, M. 1992. Business Ethics, 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Weil, V. 1993. Teaching Ethics in Science. Pp. 243–248 in Ethics, Values, and the Promise of Science. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: Sigma Xi.
Whitbeck, C. 1998. Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
A CHECKLIST FOR ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING1
Recognize and define the ethical issues (i.e., identify what is [are] the problem[s] and who is involved or affected).
Identify the key facts of the situation, as well as ambiguities or uncertainties, and what additional information is needed and why.
Identify the affected parties or “stakeholders” (i.e., individuals or groups who affect, or are affected by, the problem or its resolution). For example, in a case involving intentional deception in reporting research results, those affected include those who perpetrated the deception, other members of the research group, the department and university, the funder, the journal where the results were published, other researchers developing or conducting research on the findings, etc.
Formulate viable alternative courses of action that could be taken, and continue to check the facts.
Assess each alternative (i.e., its implications; whether it is in accord with the ethical standards being used, and if not, whether it can be justified on other grounds; consequences for affected parties; issues that will be left unresolved; whether it can be publicly defended on ethical grounds; the precedent that will be set; practical constraints, e.g., uncertainty regarding consequences, lack of ability, authority or resources, institutional, structural, or procedural barriers).
Construct desired options and persuade or negotiate with others to implement them.
Decide what actions should be taken and in so doing, recheck and weigh the reasoning in steps 1–6.