Kristyn Masters: Teaching for Ethical Engineering

Kristyn Masters - image credit: COE portraits You are working on a project and inadvertently realize that the chemical byproducts, initially deemed safe, may have environmental consequences and need to be contained. You are working with a team to build a complex prototype and notice an error that could have expensive safety implications. In either case: What do you do?

Engineers may need to solve ethical problems similar to these - related to materials, safety, regulations, funding, or other issues - many times over the course of their careers. While ethics has long been included in venues like technical communication, many believe that it would be useful to integrate ethics into a variety of technical engineering courses as well, where it has historically been a much smaller part of the curriculum.

"I think that it's really beneficial for students to know that ethics is part of engineering. Lots of ethical decisions are part of the design process," says Kristyn Masters, professor of Biomedical Engineering.

Citing the practical and moral value of teaching ethics in tandem with the technical content required for engineering courses, Masters has begun working with Sarah Pfatteicher, an expert in engineering ethics and assistant dean in CALS, to develop an ethics module that can be adapted by faculty members "to incorporate ethics across all of the courses in the engineering curriculum."

Masters says that at first, she was somewhat skeptical that it would be possible for students to develop meaningful knowledge about ethics by listening to a guest lecture or participating in a short module. She has been impressed, however, by results that are "quantitative and convincing."

Masters and other faculty initially piloted an introduction to moral theory in a BME course, and then assessed the ability of students to 'solve' an engineering ethics problem. The students took a short quiz that presented them with an ethical problem and asked them to explain what they would do in that situation.

Masters describes the quiz results, in which 90% of the students solved the problem by choosing between being ethical whistle-blowers or illegally withholding information, as "very black and white... with extreme choices on either end."

Masters then drew upon the 'Teaching-as-Research' philosophy of the Delta Program to approach engineering ethics instruction from a new angle. She teamed up with Dr. Pfatteicher, who taught the students in Masters' course how to work through ethics problems using a procedure guided by a mnemonic device. On the subsequent quiz, approximately 94% of the students chose an answer that was an alternative to the extreme choices - many of them creatively re-casting the problem so as to resolve the ethical dilemma.

"The students came up with all kinds of alternatives... like asking a different question, lobbying their legislative representatives... They had much more of what Sarah calls 'moral imagination,' so that was what got us thinking that [this method] elicited much better responses from the students," Masters says. "[The students were] thinking about ethics in a more comprehensive way."

Masters reports similar results across other classes that have received similar instruction and completed similar assessments. "I have been convinced by the quantitative data that this is worth pursuing," she says.

The specific ethical problem solving procedure that Masters and Pfatteicher have been working with centers on the mnemonic device "DISORDER," which was initially described in an online essay by ethicist Lisa Newton. (This link refers directly to the section of Newton's essay that describes the DISORDER mnemonic.)

Each letter stands in for a step that students can use to generate ideas and solutions. For example, "O" stands for "Options" - brainstorming potential alternative routes to approaching the problem, and the possible outcomes of each.

"[Working through the mnemonic] is actually really similar to a design problem," Masters explains, "A lot of [ethical problem solving] is about the moral imagination... being able to understand the ethical problem, understand facets of the problem, look at different potential solutions to the problem... They can go through this ethical problem solving process to generate possible solutions that display a good understanding of the questions and the process."

Masters hopes that the similarities between the design process and the ethical problem solving process will give students and instructors greater confidence in using the module in their classes. "Students can start to see ethics not as an intangible and vague, abstract, qualitative thing... [but] as more manageable, something they can work through like they work through a technical problem," she points out.

"There are lots of ways to teach ethics, and [using the DISORDER mnemonic] is one of the ways that we've chosen because of the very strong design emphasis here... Because instructors are very comfortable teaching the design process and design problems, having the ethics instruction mimic something that they're very comfortable with will help the instructors implement it well."

Masters has presented her work on teaching ethics at several venues so far, from a Delta brownbag to the Ethics Across the Curriculum conference. She is currently working on creating discipline-specific ethics modules with appropriate case studies and making them available for instructors to use, with the hope that the inclusion of ethics instruction becomes the norm throughout courses in the College of Engineering.

Masters recognizes that "there are some big obstacles to teaching ethics... it's difficult to cram into a full syllabus... instructors often don't feel comfortable with it. I know I didn't feel comfortable teaching it at first! ...We want the materials we develop to be adaptable, so once students get an introduction to ethical problem solving, it should be easier for instructors to incorporate an ethics question on quizzes or homeworks, to make it a real part of assignments."

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For more information about the ideas in this series:

1) Doing Good and Avoiding Evil, online essay and curriculum materials by ethicist Lisa Newton.

Newton's essay on ethics instruction covers a wide range of information about ethics - from its philosophical underpinnings to cases and mnemonics that are appropriate for classroom instruction. For those interested in what ethics instruction might look like, Masters says, "it's a good overview of ethical concepts, but it also includes lots of specific ideas that you can use for teaching."

2) Whitbeck, Caroline. (1996). Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems. The Hastings Center Report, v. 26.

Whitbeck discusses methods of ethical problem solving, and specifically, the similarity between design processes and ethical processes. Masters, who has included this article as part of her teaching, reports that, often, when students read this piece, "a lightbulb goes on for them..." Whitbeck "gets them thinking about design and problem solving... how [design] is integrated with ethics and solving those kinds of problems."