Engineering Ethics & The Psychology Behind It

A new research study examining the effects of teaching engineering students ethics through a psychology course was published earlier this year. The lead writer of the article, Nguyen Van Hanh, is a professor at Hanoi University of Science and Technology in Vietnam.

The aim of their research study, titled “Teaching Engineering Ethics Through a Psychology Course,” was to evaluate if utilizing engineering case studies in a psychology class would increase the students’ comprehension of engineering ethics. Four hundred engineering students participated in a psychology course in which two units of the course integrated engineering case studies. For the students’ midterm, they were told that their assignment would require knowledge of an ethical case study. The results were based on a pre-and post-test score of the class. The average score on the pre-test was 3.01 compared to the post-test score of 3.23.

“(T)he empirical results demonstrated that teaching engineering ethics through a psychology course has a significant effect on improving the knowledge of engineering ethics for students,” the report outlined.

The research article states this as one of the four discussion points. This is an intriguing statement as some scholars may disagree with it.

“Probably not, I don’t think that’s a very good way of doing it,” said Dr. Anne Colby, a professor at Stanford University, when asked if she thought teaching ethical dilemmas through case studies was an effective way of teaching ethics. Dr. Colby has done vast research in the field of ethics, along with writing multiple books on the matter. Dr. Colby has previously worked as Director for the Henry Murray Research Center at Harvard and has worked at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

“If you ask people what would you do, that’s not even a moral question,” Dr. Colby stated. This provides evidence against the idea that teaching ethics through case studies is effective. However, not all agree with this viewpoint. Some who have a different perspective agree that teaching ethics through case studies is effective.

“I think so … (it) gives you a little bit more of a real-world feel of what it’s like to do ethics,” said Dr. Alec Eshelman in response to the question whether he thinks using case studies to expose students to ethical dilemmas increases the student’s ability to make ethical decisions. Dr. Eshelman is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Including his time spent teaching at another university, he has been teaching psychology to students for eight years. It is interesting to see the opposing viewpoint of a professor who has taught psychology for an extended period versus a researcher who has spent a vast amount of time researching ethics as well as teaching.

“Establishment of an EAC program will ever be an exercise in institutional politics,” according to Dr. Carl Mitcham and Dr. Elaine Englehardt, as stated in their study on establishing an ethics across the curriculum programs at various universities. Dr. Mitcham and Dr. Englehardt highlight the idea that there is still much to learn about how best to go about teaching ethics. It can be hard to evaluate how effectively schools are teaching ethics when schools struggle to implement an ethics program.

“First-year engineering students can be engaged to think about ethics by emphasizing active learning through case studies and student-led discussions,” Andrew Lau stated in his article on teaching ethics. Andrew Lau is a faculty member at Penn State. This evidence suggests that learning about case studies may effectively engage students, but how well do students understand ethics? This question does not seem to have one right answer and will require further research.