Blog: Letting students flex their ethical muscles

In this blog, Dr Matthew Studley, Associate Professor of Technology Ethics at UWE, looks at using case studies from the Engineering Ethics Toolkit to engage students.

Over the last two years, I have been part of the team that created the Engineering Ethics Toolkit for the Engineering Professors Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The toolkit is based around case studies, which let students flex their ethical muscles on problems concerning a variety of applications of technology in different fields, and are structured for delivery with examples of exercises, discussion points, and further reading.

We have integrated ethics teaching into all our programmes in the School of Engineering at UWE, Bristol, and this has given me the chance to build lessons on the case studies.  I first delivered a session to around 100 Degree Apprentices from a variety of industrial backgrounds.  This was exciting!

We first warmed up by discussing how ‘ethics’ is different from ‘morals’, and I suggested that we could view ethics in some ways as like any engineering process; we’re optimising for moral good, rather than cost, strength, or some other non-functional metric.  The big difference of course is that it’s hard to determine moral value – how do we measure it?

We discussed if ideas of good and bad are culturally determined and change with time, and whether there might be any universally accepted definitions.  We agreed that it would be hard to argue against a course of action if my opinion holds the same weight as yours.  Not only is ‘good’ hard to measure, but we can’t agree what it is.  So what’s the answer?

The big revelation.  The advantage of applied ethics is that we can call upon an external standard which solves part of this problem for us, defining the behaviours and outcomes which are desirable. The Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering have created a Statement of Ethical Principles for all engineers, which gives weight to our arguments about moral worth.  We now know what ‘good’ is.

I used one of the case studies in the toolkit to frame an open discussion in the lecture theatre, with groups discussing the points suggested by the authors.  Although our students were from a variety of backgrounds, it wasn’t a disadvantage to use the same case study for all. Feedback from the module leader suggested that the students found the session enjoyable and engaging (apparently, I should do a regular podcast).

After this pilot we have delivered a similar session on a wider scale by tutors to groups of all our final year students.  My colleagues suggested that some students were less engaged. I think we might use some role-play next time; get them moving round the room, get them to use their bodies, get them to own the issues. Ethics should engage the heart!

The great biologist E. O. Wilson said, “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.” With more people, having greater resource needs, and the possibility that AI will accelerate our technological development still faster, it seems to me more important than ever to train engineers who are confident and empowered to make ethical decisions.

If you would like to contribute a resource to the Engineering Ethics Toolkit, you can find out how to get involved here.


This blog is also available here.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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