ABET 2000 - Can Engineering Faculty Teach Ethics?

Keith Schimmel

Department of Chemical Engineering
North Carolina A&T State University
Greensboro, NC


The so-called ""soft 6"" of the ABET 2000 Outcomes includes ""an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility."" Most engineering educators are unsure how to include this element in their curriculum, and even if they do have some idea, are almost certain to not know how to assess whether or not this outcome has been achieved. Much of this uncertainty is a result of the ""relative"" ethics that permeates U.S. society - ""We cannot know what is right and wrong."" This situation provides an opportunity for faculty in secular universities who can develop a plan for concisely presenting the elements of ethical engineering decision making to have a natural opportunity to share their Christian faith and how a Christian worldview of absolute truths can aid this decision making process. This paper provides a summary of available resources and some thoughts on what student abilities are needed to meet this outcome, available education strategies to meet the outcome, and measurement of the outcome.

Student Abilities to Meet the Outcome

ABET 2000 criterion 3(f) (ABET, 1998) states that ""Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility."" It should be noted that this criterion requires only an ""understanding of"" as contrasted with most of the criterion that require an ""ability to."" While this difference makes the criterion relatively easier to accomplish, it should still be the goal of engineering programs to seek to go beyond graduates who merely hear about engineering ethics to graduates who can function ethically. In fact, one can interpret criterion 3(h) and 4 as strongly encouraging engineering schools to provide students with structured opportunities to make ethically wise decisions.

Criterion 3(h) states - ""Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context."" This criterion highlights the importance not only of right choices made by individuals in engineering practice (""microethics""), but also the importance of right choices made by societies as a whole with respect to engineering and technical projects (""macroethics""). A final reference to ethics in the ABET 2000 criteria is in criterion 4 - "". a major design experience.that includes most of the following considerations: economic, environmental, sustainability, manufacturability, ethical, health and safety, social, and political."" This criterion indicates the need to provide students with design experiences in which they are required to make ethical decisions that have consequences.

What exactly is the challenge that ABET has provided engineering schools in relation to the teaching of ethics? Simply stated, it is to teach students arguments and theories about what actions are right (or wrong), and which states of affairs are good (or bad) related to the professional practice of engineering. Additionally, students need to be provided with structured opportunities to make ethical decisions related to engineering practice. A sample list of what students need to be able to do to satisfy this outcome is as follows:

  1. ability to offer and defend a definition of engineering ethics,
  2. ability to recall the essential elements of a professional engineering society code of conduct,
  3. ability to list and explain multiple reasons for being ethical in the practice of engineering,
  4. ability to identify and critically analyze common ethical dilemmas in the practice of engineering, including possible consequences,
  5. ability to analyze ethical arguments to discover which argument one has the best reasons to believe and act upon,
  6. ability to speak and write in a way that is logical, complete, consistent, and clear, and that can recognize potential objections to one''s position,
  7. ability to recognize the historical importance to our society of previous ethical decisions made in relation to engineering and technology,
  8. ability to recognize actions that expose oneself to legal liability,
  9. ability to use basic risk assessment techniques in the engineering decision-making process,
  10. ability to recognize the regional and global consequences of engineering decisions.

This list is based on the belief that there is significant overlap in criteria 3(f), 3(h), and 4, and thus, they should be considered together.

Educational Strategies to Meet the Outcome: Current Status of Engineering Ethics Teaching

A recent survey indicates that 80% of engineering graduates attend schools that have no ethics-related course requirements (Stephan, 1998). While 16% of institutions and 7% of graduates do have one or more required courses with ethics-related content, these courses are usually not courses in engineering ethics, but rather courses in philosophy or religion that have no specific engineering ethics component.

Why do so few schools have an engineering-ethics requirement? Significant barriers include faculty indifference, student indifference, and the belief that engineering faculty are not competent to teach ethics (Herkert, 1999). Engineering faculty are most comfortable with quantitative concepts, and often do not believe they are qualified to lead class discussions on ethics. Many engineering faculty do not think that they have the time in an already overcrowded syllabus to introduce discussions on professional ethics, or the time in their own schedules to prepare the necessary material. Koehn''s (1997) findings from courses at Lamar University suggest that while undergraduate students may lack motivation to study ethics, they do have an interest in the social aspects of engineering that could be used to leverage an interest in ethics.

While these are significant barriers to overcome, there are a number of factors, in addition to the ABET 2000 criteria, working in favor of the expanded teaching of ethics in an engineering context. One factor is the increasing emphasis in government and industry on environmentally sustainable development and related ethical decisions on regional and global resource allocation. As a result of significant advances in biotechnology over the past twenty years, ethical decision making related to genetic engineering has become important. A third factor is the rapid rate of change in information technology and ethical issues related to intellectual property and the ease of transmission of undesirable content to large populations. Additionally, the high level of media attention given to cases such as the Challenger disaster, the Kansas City Hyatt-Regency Hotel walkways collapse, and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill has increased interest in engineering ethics.

These factors have lead to increased government and industrial funding of engineering ethics course materials. This growth has resulted recently (1995) in the publication of the first scholarly journal in the area - Science and Engineering Ethics (Opragen Publications). Numerous engineering ethics case studies are now available as indicated in the list at the end of this article. Case studies are valuable and popular because they are widely available, pre-packaged, easily inserted into courses, and engaging for students and faculty (Pfatteicher, 1999). However, they can have the disadvantages of being hard to generalize, unusual rather than typical, and deceptively well-defined.

Curriculum Models to Meet the Outcome

How can engineering ethics be incorporated into an already tight engineering curriculum? There are five basic approaches that one may take - (1) required course in engineering ethics (e.g., Texas A&M University), (2) required course that integrates engineering ethics (microethics) with the social context of engineering (macroethics) (Herkert, 1999; Soudek, 1999), (3) integration of engineering ethics across the curriculum (e.g., University of Michigan; Steneck, 1999), (4) integrated humanities and social science program that addresses all non-technical ABET 2000 outcomes (e.g., Illinois Institute of Technology) or (5) integrated engineering related community service project and lecture series (e.g., Purdue Univesity; EPICS, 1999). Which of these approaches or combination of approaches is best for a given engineering school will depend on the unique attributes of that school. Generally, however, approaches that require coordination and cooperation between faculty within a department or between faculty from different departments will require more effort to successfully implement than an individual course. Any successful strategy needs to consider minimization of the cost in terms of faculty time and curriculum hours, instruction in a number of courses so as to prevent students from gaining the impression that ethics is a side issue that is not really important, and mentoring (role-modeling) by faculty.

Given the earlier stated higher initial interest level for societal aspects of engineering (macroethics) compared to ethical aspects (microethics) by students, the teaching of a required course for engineers that covers both areas is an important strategy to consider. Course topics should include basic concepts and methods in ethics, typical professional engineering society code of conduct, history of engineering and technology, organizational loyalty versus professional rights, engineers and the environment, risk and the engineering decision-making process, whistleblowing, and social responsibility versus legal liability.

Engineering related community service projects offer a number of advantages that make them worthy of serious consideration as a strategy to use. The Purdue University EPICS Program uses a vertical integration approach with interdisciplinary teams of students mixed with sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Advantages of the community service approach include opportunities to apply engineering ethics, improved relations between university and its local community, student experience working on an interdisciplinary team, real start-to-finish design experience, and customer awareness.

Measuring the Outcome

Assessment of the engineering ethics criterion should be carried out using appropriately designed and tested student surveys, faculty surveys, employer surveys, and course exams (Huband, 1998). However, probably the most effective way to demonstrate most of the desired outcomes is through student portfolios that contain samples of student essays analyzing ethical issues with which a practicing engineer may be faced. These types of essays provide opportunities to demonstrate how a student applies knowledge of different ethical theories to make a decision on what the right thing to do is in a given engineering decision dilemma. Essays on ethical issues faced during internships and community service projects will also be valuable assessment instruments to include in student portfolios.


The ABET 2000 criteria offer new opportunities for presenting engineering in terms of a Christian worldview on the secular campus. As more engineering schools implement curricula that address engineering ethics, it is expected that in the majority of cases the most effective model will be one in which students are required to take a course that integrates engineering ethics with the social context of engineering. A strategy that is growing in popularity and has a number of benefits is engineering community service projects.


ABET (1998), Engineering Criteria 2000, http://www.abet.org/eac/EAC_99-00_Criteria.htm.

Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) (1999), http://shay.ecn.purdue.edu/~epics/docs/docs/nutshell.html.

Herkert, J.R. (1999), ""Ethical Responsibility and Societal Context: The Case for Integrating Engineering Ethics and Public Policy,"" in H. Luegenbiehl, K. Neeley, and D.F. Ollis, eds.,Liberal Education in 21st Century Engineering, Peter Lang, New York (in press).

Herkert, J.R. (1999), ""ABET''s Engineering Criteria 2000 and Engineering Ethics: Where Do We Go From Here?,"" http:// onlineethics.org/text/essays/herkert2.html.

Huband, F.L. (ed.) (1998), How Do You Measure Success? Designing Effective Processes for Assessing Engineering Education, ASEE Professional Books, Washington, D.C.

Koehn, E. (1997), ""Engineering Perceptions of ABET Accreditation Criteria,"" Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice 123(2), 66-70.

Pfatteicher, S.K.A. (1999), ""EC2000 and the Engineering Ethics Dilemma,"" http://onlineethics.org/text/essays/pfatteicher.html.

Soudek, I.H. (1999), ""Turning Belief into Action: Aims of Teaching Engineering Ethics,"" Proceedings of the 1999 ASEE Annual Conference, Charlotte, NC.

Stenecj, N.H. (1999), ""Co-opting Engineering Models and Methods to Teach Engineering Ethics,"" Proceedings of the 1999 ASEE Annual Conference, Charlotte, NC.

Stephan, K.D. (1998), ""The Invisible Topic: A Survey of Ethics-Related Instruction in U.S. Engineering Programs,"" unpublished manuscript.

Sources of Case Studies

Applied Ethics in Professional Practice (1999), Professional Engineering Practice Liaison Program, College of Engineering, University of Washington, http://www.engr.washington.edu/~uw-epp/pepl/ethics.

Engineering Ethics (1999), Texas A&M University, http://lowery.tamu.edu/ethics.

Engineering Ethics Internet Site (1999), Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism, Texas Tech University, http://www.coe.ttu.edu/murdough.

Hinman, L.M. (ed.), ""Ethics Updates"" (1999), http://ethics.acusd.edu.

Online Ethics Center for Engineering & Science, National Science Foundation (1999), http:// onlineethics.org.

The DNA Files, Soundvision Productions (1999), http://www.dnafiles.org.

The Ethics Connection, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (1999), Santa Clara University, http://www.scu.edu/ethics.

The National Institute for Engineering Ethics Online, National Institute for Engineering Ethics (1999), http://www.niee.org.

Whitbeck, C. (1995), ""Teaching Ethics to Scientists and Engineers: Moral Agents and Moral Problems,"" Science and Engineering Ethics, 95-0.






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2000, Christian Engineering Education Conference
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