Engineering Ethics

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) writes in a "Statement on Engineering Ethics Education":

  • "ASEE believes that, because engineering has a large and growing impact on society, engineers must be equipped by their education to fulfill their ethical obligations to the public at large, to their profession, and to their clients and employers. The ethical problems that may be confronted by engineers include such issues as conflicts of interest, threats to public health and safety or to the environment, trade secrets and proprietary information, gifts from contractors and others, honesty in research and testing, and yet other problems which will inevitably result from the application of new and revolutionary technologies.

  • "To educate students to cope with ethical problems, the first task of the teacher is to make students aware of ethical problems and help them learn to recognize them. A second task is to help students understand that their projects affect people for good or ill, and that, as "moral agents" they need to understand and anticipate these effects. A third task is to help students see that, as moral agents, they are responsible for helping to develop solutions to the ethical problems they encounter.

  • "ASEE believes that ethics education in engineering should endeavor to equip students with the skills to confront ethical problems and exercise their ethical responsibilities as engineers. While ethical issues can be raised in a lecture format, students also need practice solving ethical problems first-hand. Educators can employ a variety of problem-solving activities to give students experience using decision-making tools to handle ethical problems."

The AGORA approach to engineering ethics focuses on the experience and practice of "solving ethical problems first hand." In order to make sound ethical decisions, it is not enough for engineering professionals to know what is right and what is wrong. They must first be able to analyze complex decision situations and ill-structured problems in a way that all the involved stakeholders can be identified, their varying perspectives and values be understood, positions be justified in reasoned dialogue and interaction, and possible alternative courses of action or solutions must be imagined. This ability, however, cannot simply be taught by instruction, it must also be learned through practice and training. It can best be acquired—as has been shown in a large number of educational studies—by problem-based learning (PBL) in small-group settings. Confronted with a case they perceive as a real challenge, students are motivated both to acquire the content knowledge they need and to try various strategies to cope with difficulties.

However, collaborative and problem-based learning environments are usually much more resource intensive than traditional instruction. Research showed, for instance, that successful implementation requires an experienced facilitator for each student group. This poses a real challenge in times of tight budgets. While the accreditation of undergraduate and graduate engineering programs is dependent on the provision of ethics education, this requirement can often only be met by offering lecture classes, usually without much student involvement. This poses a serious threat to the quality of ethics education.

In recent years, Computer Supported Argument Visualization tools (CSAV tools) have been designed to cope with this educational challenge without requiring facilitators. The AGORA approach is based on the widely shared assumption that CSAV tools have the capacity to improve self-directed learning both in individual and in collaborative settings. In individual learning, they focus the learners’ attention on the structure of ill-structured problems and help them coping with complexity. Students often feel overwhelmed by the complexity of problems and knowledge domains, and do not know how to structure information when different ways of framing seem legitimate. CSAV tools attempt to facilitate the process of structuring by guiding students through a process of argument mapping. At the same time, visualizing the structure of a knowledge domain, or positions to a problem, in the form of argument maps should support a deeper understanding of these problems and the structure of knowledge domains.

In collaborative learning of small groups of autonomously working students, on the other hand, CSAV tools facilitate collaboration by “putting something in the middle,” by encouraging communication, and by structuring a sequence of steps that is necessary to achieve something in team work. All in all, Computer Supported Argument Visualization tools have the capacity to “scaffold” individual learning and to guide communication and collaboration in small groups of self-directed learners, with a special focus on the argumentative structure of scientific knowledge and of positions.