How to integrate ethics into a module or course

Author: Dr Gill Lacey (Teesside University). 

Keywords: Pedagogy; Societal impact; Personal ethics; Research ethics. 

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help prepare students with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for.  



Ethics is defined in many ways but is generally agreed to be a set of moral (right or wrong) principles that govern social behaviour. While this is not the place for a discussion of ethical philosophies and theories that analyse what we mean by “moral”, or how we define social behaviour, it is pertinent to consider the nature of engineering ethics so that we understand why it should be integrated into modules. Davis gives us a rather pared down explanation: “Integrating ethics into science and engineering courses is largely a matter of providing context for what is already being taught, context that also makes the material already being taught seem ‘more relevant,’” (Davis, 2006).  

Despite this, very often ethics is considered as an afterthought – sometimes it only comes up when a solution to a technical problem results in unintended consequences. Rather, we need our students to look at any technical solution through an ethical lens – as well as through an economic one. This generally involves considering what effect any technical project might have on society, especially on those who use that technology. Teaching students to consider the technology through an ethical lens makes them true engineers, not just technicians. And as Davis implies, relevance provides motivation. 


Some principles for integrating ethics:

Consideration needs to be given to improving our students’ ethical learning throughout their course/programme (Hess and Fore, 2018). We argue that ethics can and should be embedded into most modules in a natural way, giving as much or as little time to it as necessary. A planned progression should be aimed for throughout the course, and the Ethics Explorer in this Toolkit provides suggestions as to how this can be accomplished. A more sophisticated understanding will be arrived at over time by exposing them to more and more complex cases where the outcome is not obvious. A graduate engineer should be able to give a considered response to an employer’s question about an ethical position during an interview.  

Other principles for integrating ethics include:  

1. State your assumptions and moral position at the start of a course/module 

This is not the same as taking a moral stance. Some moral issues can be universally agreed, but not all, so we need an approach to morally disputed issues.  We must be clear about the ethical framework in which the course is being taught. An ethically neutral engineering course is neither advisable nor possible. 

For instance, it needs to be baldly stated that climate change is real, that all the modules in the course make that assumption, and low carbon solutions are the only ones that will be considered. Some students will be challenged by that. This is a case of stating the moral position of the course and asking the students how they are going to ‘be’ with that position, because it will not be argued for (Broadbent, 2019).  

Many lecturers start a module with an “expectations” list, especially with new students; it could be argued this is a first exposure to engineering ethics as it relates to social and professional behaviour in the teaching space. There is no room for discussion or reflection here; this is a statement of how things are going to be in this community. Sharing accepted moral values is assumed here. 

There are general standards of behaviour to which everyone is expected to conform around respect and disagreeing constructively; there is a professional standard to which we can conform. The advantage of doing this is that it provides certainty and weight to our judgement in report writing as well as practice in professional ethical conduct in the workplace. 

2. Provide resources 

A survey regarding the teaching of ethics showed agreement between the students that provision of resources, such as case studies and examples, were needed to allow ethics to be considered. They want guidance and access to receiving ethical approval for projects or research, and an opportunity for reflection on personal ethics and how these relate to professional attitudes or projects (Covill et al., 2010). Examples include: 

      • Case studies. This Ethics Toolkit provides dozens of potential case studies for use in a classroom setting. Students are challenged to explore their existing preconceptions and modify them to accommodate the realities of the cases (Lundeberg, Levin, and Harrington, 1999). Educators can also follow these models to develop their own case studies.
      • Engineering ethics in the news. For instance, in a wastewater treatment module, the following article might be highlighted: “Almost 90% of storm overflows discharge directly into rivers. And 3 in 4 rivers we tested last year pose a serious continuous risk to human health.” (Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), 2022). Although SAS’s website gives plenty of graphic images and up to date news as well as links to the policies that surround the issue, it doesn’t give much detail on why it happens. So it becomes a useful ethical study by asking those questions. It is not the role of the teacher to come up with any answers, but it is vital to articulate and acknowledge the feelings and emotions when presented with such an issue (Prince and Felder, 2006). We all can agree that allowing untreated sewage to overflow into rivers is bad. So how does it happen? Where is the sewage supposed to go? Where is the storm water supposed to go? What happens during a storm? What do engineers have to do with the cause, or the solution, to this problem? It is important to remind students that no one intends the sewage to contaminate watercourses, it is an unintended consequence. So how could it be prevented, and how could engineers support this solution? What needs to be done technically, politically and financially to solve the problem? Be on the lookout for contemporary issues, to make it relevant. Direct quotes, videos, images and so on from issues in the news allow students to fully involve themselves with the issue.
      • Guidance and access to receiving ethical approval for projects or research. This is a procedural issue, which may vary according to the institution; many universities have a research ethics policy which mandates the process. Clearly, we should comply with our own university processes where they exist.  A simple approach that is popular with students is a form containing yes/no questions (Junaid et al., 2021). The project supervisor can prepare students to answer accurately by talking to them about their proposals to help them identify the ethical considerations by asking ‘what if?’ type questions. This allows a non-specialist to decide whether a more in-depth ethical survey is needed. 

3. Allow for opportunity to reflect 

This can be achieved by requiring a reflection in every level of an engineering degree. It could be part of an assessment at the end of a project or module in the form of a short, written reflection. It could be approached by asking the student in an interview to consider the ethics of a situation and the interviewer can then challenge the student on their journey to become ethically literate.  

Finally, for advice on assessing ethics in an engineering module, see this guidance article. 



Broadbent, O. (2018). ‘Delivering project based learning: Teaching resources and guidance for academics.’ Engineers without Borders and Think-up. 

Covill, D., Singh D.G., Katz, T., and Morris, R. (2010). ‘Embedding ethics into the engineering and product design curricula: A Case study from the UK,’ International Conference On Engineering And Product Design Education, 2 & 3 September. Norwegian University Of Science And Technology, Trondheim, Norway. 

Davis, M. (2006) ‘Integrating ethics into technical courses: Micro-insertion,’ Science and Engineering Ethics, 12(4), pp.717-730. 

Hess, J.L., and Fore, G. (2018) ‘A Systematic Literature Review of US Engineering Ethics Interventions,’ Science and Engineering Ethics 24, pp. 551–583.  

Junaid, S., Kovacs, H., Martin, D. A., and Serreau, Y. (2021) ‘What is the role of ethics in accreditation guidelines for engineering programmes in Europe?’, Proceedings of the SEFI 49th Annual Conference: Blended Learning in Engineering Education: challenging, enlightening – and lasting? European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI), pp. 274-282. 

Lundeberg, M.A., Levin, B.B. and Harrington, H.L. (eds.), (1999). Who learns what from cases and how? The research base for teaching and learning with cases. Routledge. 

Prince, M.J. and Felder, R.M. (2006) ‘Inductive teaching and learning methods: Definitions, comparisons, and research bases,’ Journal of Engineering Education 95, pp. 123-138. 


Additional resources: 


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Let us know what you think of our website