Georgia Tech Course Selected for NAE’s Book on Exemplary Engineering Ethics Programs
An ongoing project in undergraduate course design by Georgia Tech public policy professor Robert Kirkman is one of 25 “exemplary” programs showcased by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Center for Engineering Ethics and Society (CEES) in a new report, Infusing Ethics into the Development of Engineers.
Kirkman’s submission “Problem-Based Learning in a Professional Ethics Course for Undergraduate Engineering Students” was among the undergraduate and graduate courses, multiyear programs, and extracurricular experiences selected from colleges and universities across the nation. The NAE CEES intends the report “as a resource for institutions and educators to strengthen and expand their ethics programs and thus improve the capabilities of practicing and future engineers.”
Kirkman directs the Center for Ethics and Technology, which seeks to be a focal point for innovation in ethics education at Georgia Tech.
More than 300 students have enrolled in his sections PHIL 3109 Engineering Ethics class — the program selected by the NAE CEES — since he redesigned his version of the course in Fall 2012. The course fulfills the ethics requirement for engineering majors, most of whom take the course during third- or fourth-year studies.
Kirkman explained the goal of his approach to engineering ethics as “helping students develop a set of cognitive skills associated with moral imagination: noticing, responding, and thinking about basic values as they are woven through complex or ‘messy’ problems: situations in which there may not be just one correct option or even just one way of understanding the problem.”
Following the problem-based learning (PBL) model, Kirkman’s version of the course is structured like an apprenticeship; students work together in groups, with guidance from the instructor, to acquire and use the cognitive tools of ethical inquiry and problem solving.
Among these tools is what is known as “scaffolding,” an artificial structure for focusing students’ attention until they have enough experience to see the issues on their own. A blank table or chart, or instructions for creating diagrams, can serve as scaffolding.
The most recent development in the project has been to build the course around tools offered by Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which Kirkman says lends itself quite well to the context of professional practice.
“While Aristotle was most interested in dispositions of character that contribute to general human flourishing, in terms of the function or characteristic activity of humans as such,” says Kirkman, “I have students consider the function of engineers as professionals and the dispositions of character most appropriate to that role.
While he is just beginning systematic collection of data on the effectiveness of the course design, Kirkman’s observations suggest the PBL approach in practical ethics is especially promising.
“When I first implemented PBL, the impact on student engagement was immediate and dramatic, especially compared to my previous lecture-and-discussion approach. Attendance improved markedly, and students were generally active participants in group work.”
He says the current design, with its high degree of student control over problem situations and presentation formats, actually seems to make the course enjoyable for students.
“They say the class has begun to change the way they perceive various situations in which they find themselves at school, at work, listening to the news, or even just spending time with friends. They tell me they have started noticing the values that are in play in such situations.”
The PBL program is one of a number of ethics projects Kirkman is pursuing, among them an environmental ethics course, a new initiative in design ethics, and a proposed project to integrate ethics education into engineering capstone courses.
“These are among many such projects here in the School of Public Policy in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts,” said Kirkman. “Many of us are putting a lot of effort into innovation and excellence in ethics education for engineering students, though in slightly different directions.”
Professor Kirkman has received the Hesburgh Award Teaching Fellowship and the Eichholtz Faculty Teaching Award.
Read More about Kirkman in the Classroom