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Integrating Ethics into Graduate and Undergraduate Mechanical Engineering Courses—Elizabeth Friis (2008)


Professor Lisa Friis

A mechanical engineering professor uses EESE language and decision-making tools to help students learn to discuss controversial topics and to use logical structures for ethical analyses.


Following the NSF-sponsored Ethics Education in Science and Engineering workshop, I embedded an ethics component into three courses: one required lower-level undergraduate engineering course, and two elective graduate-level engineering courses.


Depending on the level of students and the course topic, I incorporated a mixture of lecture, dramas, debates, and exams into my teaching. Typically one lecture was devoted to providing students with the appropriate background, and a second class period was spent in group discussions or debates. Students were expected to approach ethical dilemmas using an ethical reasoning table as a guide, and they were assessed based on an ethical analysis rubric I designed.

Student Performance

Initially, students did not meet expectations for excellent work because they tended to address ethical dilemmas by describing their gut responses. After I re-worded my assignments and test questions to more explicitly ask students to use the language of ethical decision-making, I noticed that their performance improved.


Teaching ethics using the framework of EESE allowed for a neutral approach to solving ethical dilemmas, one with objective reasoning and language. I found that providing students with EESE language and decision-making tools allowed for the class to discuss controversial topics in a very rational way. Given the implicit and important role of ethical decision-making in the engineering profession, I plan to continue incorporating ethics in both my undergraduate and graduate courses.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No 0629443. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Student working in the labBackground

The NSF-sponsored Ethics Education in Science and Engineering (EESE) workshop at the University of Kansas helped guide faculty and staff participants through fundamental approaches to ethics education. Workshop participants incorporated aspects of these approaches in their courses.

My goals following the EESE workshop were to improve the ethics component in three courses I teach. Prior to EESE, I incorporated ethics in my courses by introducing students to the code of ethics for engineering (pdf); however, I did not offer students tools or logical structure for ethical analyses. After the EESE workshop, I developed lectures and assignments to better teach ethics and decision-making skills in each of the following courses:

  • Lower level undergraduate course (ME 346/ME 306): Selecting and Processing of Engineering Materials
    ME346 is a required course for mechanical engineering students, and ME306 is a service course for other engineering majors; these courses share the lecture, exams, and homework. Students ranging from freshmen to seniors are enrolled in this course, with most students at the first-semester, junior stage. This course covers topics of fundamental materials science and manufacturing as related to engineering design. I piloted my ethics lessons during Fall 2007 in a class with 104 students enrolled. For more information, see my ME 346/ME 306 syllabus.
  • Graduate course (ME 765): Biomaterials
    ME765 is an elective course open to any senior or graduate student in any engineering discipline. This course is an introduction to the field of biomaterials; a device-driven approach to understanding selection of biomaterials is used. I first included the ethics component in this course during Fall 2007, teaching to a class with 24 students enrolled. For more information, see my Fall 2007 syllabus and my Fall 2008 syllabus.
  • Graduate course (ME 760): Biomedical Product Development
    ME760 is an elective course for mechanical engineering students but is also open to students from other engineering disciplines, as well as business and industrial design. This course is restricted to seniors or graduate students. This course covers topics of how to approach engineering analysis of medical device development from concept to potential commercialization. In Spring 2008 I taught this class for 16 students and applied things I learned from my efforts in the other two courses. For more information, see my ME 760 syllabus.

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Student working on a class projectImplementation

I presented similar ethics information in both graduate and undergraduate courses. However, the manner of presentation, the depth of discussion, and the assessment varied depending on the whether I was teaching undergraduates or graduate students.

General model for including ethics in graduate-level courses:
I devoted a 75-minute class period to an ethics module. Brief examples were also incorporated throughout the semester. The goal of the approach was to teach students about fundamental approaches to ethical analysis and provide active learning exercises to practice implementation of these analysis techniques. The general approach I took was as follows:

  • Gave students a general engineering, straight-forward, black-and-white example about an engineer facing an ethical issue in the specific field. Case Study 1 was purposely designed to be an example in which the students could imagine themselves at this stage in their careers. I held a brief discussion on this case at the beginning of the class period.
  • Presented a “grey” example (Case Study 2); let the students think about it briefly then discuss it in class for up to five minutes. I had anticipated the issues would not be resolved in this time period because the Case Study 2 is more complicated and had aspects that require technical knowledge of the field to fully understand and address.
  • Presented the Ethics Lecture (pdf) (approximately 25 minutes). The lecture was developed based on concepts and ideas presented by the facilitators of the NSF EESE workshop. During the lecture, together as a class we addressed the issues of Case Study 1 in terms of the three approaches to ethical analysis individually. We ended the lecture by using a pluralistic ethical analysis to identify the acceptable pathways and solutions. By working though the less complex example in class, the technique to decouple approaches was directly illustrated.
  • After the lecture, I presented the Case Study 2 example again. I asked students to form small groups in the classroom and distributed the pluralistic Ethical Reasoning Table (developed based on a Pluralistic Ethical Analysis Approach demonstrated in the NSF ESEE workshop) to help direct and organize the teams toward use of the ethical reasoning principles discussed in the lecture. I gave the groups five to ten minutes to work together on filling in the sheet. One person was then designated as the spokesperson of the group.
  • At the end of the five to ten minutes, I asked for a team spokesperson to identify the facts, ethical issues, players, etc. Once facts and ethical issues had been presented, one team presented issues from the Utilitarian approach, another team presented from the Deontological approach, and a third team presented from the Virtue-based approach. After each approach was presented, I allowed it to turn into a whole class discussion, where students were asked to identify the approach they were using when bringing up a point. I tried to direct discussion along one ethical reasoning line at a time and asked students to use “the language of ethics” during their discussion.
  • Assigned the Case study 2 as a team (three students) homework problem where they discussed this case study further. I assessed quality of the students’ assessment of the ethical issues by using the Ethical Analysis Rubric. On the day the homework was turned in, the class had another brief group discussion about additional thoughts that came out about the analysis within the teams.
  • Case Study 2 was reintroduced later on in the semester. I repeated the analysis steps and inclusion of variables because at that time, the technical information relevant to deeper understanding of the problem was presented. The goal was that students should realize that technical knowledge is often required to fully understand implications of ethical situations in their careers.
  • As the semester progressed, I looked for ways to incorporate these principles into application of basic concepts. I kept a copy of the Reasoning Table handy for use as the students brought up relevant questions.
  • In subsequent semesters of incorporating this material, I eliminated the initial lengthy in class discussion of Case Study 2 and instead discussed it very briefly. Students discussed the problem in their homework teams. This modified approach worked slightly better and reduced the overall time by approximately 20 minutes.

Assessments of student learning
Students were given opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of ethics both in written homework assignments (see links below) and in class discussion. The ME765 homework example also served to prepare students for a debate on the ethics of using embryonic stem cells in biomaterials related research.

For ME765, the Ethical Reasoning Table was also used for another homework assignment on the use of embryonic stem cells in research. Student teams were asked to define and discuss the issues in advance of the whole class debate, which was scheduled on the date that the homework was due. As a prelude to the debate, students were asked as a class to define the facts, the players, and the major issues. Students formed groups on each position and proceeded with the debate, using the Ethical Reasoning Table to guide discussion using one approach at a time. I was careful to not give opinions on the subject, but to only guide discussion. Students were strongly encouraged to use terms related to ethics during the debate and to focus on one analysis approach at a time during the debate.

In ME765, I gave an in-class exam that required that students use ethical vocabulary to critically analyze a case. No in-class exam question on ethical analysis was given in ME760, as typically approximately half of the students in this course have already taken ME765.

General model for including ethics education in undergraduate courses
The approach I took with undergraduates follows the model for graduate students, with a few major differences. First, I began the ethics component of my 346 undergraduate class by having students role-play a situation containing an ethical dilemma (pdf). I then gave a short lecture (pdf), with less emphasis on background than in the graduate courses. In the lecture, I was able to illustrate specific points using examples from the student drama in discussion of each ethical analysis approach. Students actively contributed to the ideas generated and were very receptive in the final pluralistic analysis. I then assigned two homework problems for self-selected homework teams to complete. The first ethics problem dealt with students working together in homework teams with uneven distribution of effort. The fact that students vary in their contribution to team homework assignments is a common issue in undergraduate courses; therefore, this ethical analysis was intended to set the stage for later homework team activities. The second problem was the now classic presentation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with sides presented from both the viewpoint of management and engineers. The students used the Ethical Reasoning Table to analyze the issues of each problem. The homework analysis was discussed briefly in class on the day that it was turned in. The Ethical Analysis Rubric was used to grade the homework, but this rubric was not given out to the students ahead of time. I gave a test question in their midterm exam that did not involve an ethical analysis, per se, but a correct answer on the exam reflected they had completed their homework.

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Student working in the labStudent Performance

The mean grade on the ethics assignment for students in ME 765 was an 88% (SD ± 6.5%). The mean grade for students in ME 346 was 82% (SD ± 13%). I attributed low scores on assignments and exam questions, in part, to the wording of my questions. Unless I specifically asked for students to respond to a questions using ethical language, they would simply narrate a gut response. Consequently, I improved the homework question by better describing what I wanted students to do. After I changed the wording and assigned homework in ME 760, overall performance improved as evidenced by the more directed and meaningful answers.

For examples of student work, please look at the pdf files linked below.

Course: Assignments: Course: Assignments:
ME760 Homework #2 ME346 Drama
ME765 Test ME346 Engineering Ethics
    ME346 Exam
Course: Grade Result: Course: Grade Result:
ME760 High ME346 High
ME760 Average ME346 High
ME765 High ME346 Average
ME765 High ME346 Low
ME765 Average ME346 Low
ME765 Average    
ME765 Low    
ME765 Low    
ME765 Low    

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Professor Elizabeth Friis

Elizabeth Friis


Prior to the EESE workshop, I included ethics in my courses by discussing the code of ethics for mechanical engineers. However, it often felt confrontational—and potentially negative—because I stressed the importance of making good decisions by emphasizing the consequences of unethical decisions. Teaching ethics using the framework of EESE allowed for a more neutral approach, one with objective reasoning and language.

One challenge I’ve had is getting students to address ethical questions in homework using the language of ethics—as opposed to their own gut-level descriptive responses. I found that by changing the wording of my questions to specifically address certain ethical components, I was able to elicit higher quality responses. Similarly, the first time I had students use a pluralistic table, they seemed to struggle with organizing their thoughts. By simply directing them to analyze each possible option separately within the table, students struggled less and performed better.

It was effective for me to introduce ethics right at the beginning of the course. Once I provided students with an ethical decision-making framework, it provided a context in which I could situate material throughout the course. Often I returned to examples discussed during the ethics portion of the course; other times I asked students to use ethical reasoning as a tool to probe deeper into issues we were discussing outside the ethics portion. For example, in my ME 765 course we discuss stem cell research. Prior to the EESE workshop, I had students read about the issue and gave an assignment to help prepare them to discuss the case. Last fall, I instead had the students complete a pluralistic ethical analysis of the situation, stressing the need to use the language of ethics in their analysis and in preparation for the debate. This, in turn, facilitated a less-heated, more rational debate among class members. In this way, I have used ethical analyses not only as a topic to teach unto itself, but also as a tool to achieve other teaching goals in my course.

Unexpectedly, I even used ethical analyses to deal with an incident of academic misconduct in my course. For the undergraduate course, I have students work in groups for many of their assignments. One team appeared to plagiarize part of an assignment, raising issues of academic misconduct. Although one person was the instigator, the entire team of three had to have been aware of his behavior. Further, the teams had originally formulated team rules at the beginning of the semester, so it is likely that they all had basis for good judgment. Still, despite the fact that the students should have been adequately prepared to make good decisions, I decided not to fail the students. Instead, I had each student write a pluralistic ethical analysis of academic misconduct (pdf). In this way, I was hopefully reinforcing the analytical tools I had been teaching, in addition to penalizing the students for the misconduct.

I am pleased that I have seen lasting impacts of this work. One student who took ME 765 last year emailed me a link to a recent article focused on an ethical issue very central to our discipline. I then used this article as the basis of an ethical analysis assignment in my ME 760 course this spring. Similarly, other students have sent me information about news stories in the bioengineering field. The recent Department of Justice investigations into orthopedic medical device companies have spurred many news stories that relate directly to the ideas we discussed in both ME765 and ME760.

Finally, ethics has informed my own research goals; recently, we incorporated our efforts in ethics education in a recent multi-institutional NSF proposal and in an NSF RET (Research Experience for Teachers) grant that was funded. Because ethics is so implicit to my professional field (and because I wish I been trained in ethical decision-making tools as a student), I plan to continue incorporating it in my courses.

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