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Using Design Norms to Teach Engineering Ethics

Gayle E. Ermer and Steven H. VanderLeest
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI


Engineering ethics is a difficult subject to teach. Both students and faculty perceive it as a subjective area that cannot be quantified. Modern faculty are uncomfortable with the idea of teaching in areas related to values, attitudes, and behavior (areas tied to ethics) as opposed to knowledge and skills. Engineering students have the preconception that philosophical issues are too abstract and therefore irrelevant to their engineering work. Ethics is also a difficult subject to integrate with other engineering topics. The detailed, technical topics of typical engineering courses do not obviously lend themselves to broad, philosophical analysis. Faculty also feel time pressure in such courses, dissuading them from squeezing in non-technical topics such as ethics discussions.

This paper presents an innovative method of teaching ethics as part of the design process. Design norms are moral guidelines. Normative design attempts to balance design trade-offs not only among technical constraints but also among ethical constraints. Designing to such norms forces the engineer to consider the broader impact of the design on the society in which it will be embedded. Design norms include concepts such as cultural appropriateness, transparency, stewardship, integrity, justice, and caring. These criteria can be incorporated into an expanded decision matrix, allowing the engineer to quantify how well a proposed solution meets both ethical and technical constraints in an explicit trade-off. Because of this organized, quantitative approach, students are more likely to adopt an ethical standard. By making the ethical judgments less abstract, both students and instructors will be attracted to integrating design norms into their own engineering designs.

Gayle E. Ermer and Steven H. VanderLeest, "Using Design Norms to Teach Engineering Ethics," Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June, 2002.

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