Blending Codes: Ethics Education and the Energy Code—Julia Keen, KSU (2007)

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A Kansas State University architectural engineering professor incorporates ethics learning into a graduate elective course.


—Julia Keen, KSU (2007)

Portfolio Overview

I incorporated ethics into "Building Energy Codes and Standards," my course within ARE 720, Topics in Architectural Engineering. The course focuses on energy codes students must know in their careers as professional engineers, and in Spring 2007 I introduced a module that would help them read these codes to solve ethical dilemmas.

I used a PowerPoint presentation to introduce students to the Professional Code of Ethics and to an eight-step ethical decision making process. We used the process in class to work through one case study that I made increasingly complicated by adding or changing information. After we discussed ethics in class, I asked students to apply what they learned to evaluate a case study according to the ethical decision making procedure.

Students generally performed well during in-class ethics discussions and on their case study analysis papers, which encouraged me to continue using the ethics module in future semesters. Half the papers were in the A range, and the best papers reflected an understanding of ethical complexity and multiple points of view.

Ethical learning in this course helped students practice real-world application of ethics to appropriately read energy codes and consider professional challenges before entering the workplace. They learned how to use the ethical decision making procedure as a tool for reading energy codes and making informed, efficient decisions on the job. In the future, I would like to introduce more case studies for students to analyze.


Course context

ARE 720, Topics in Architectural Engineering, is an elective engineering course offered to undergraduate and graduate students each semester. The topic I teach, “Building Energy Codes & Standards,” aims to familiarize students with codes that they will be expected to apply on the job as professional engineers. After completing the EESE workshop as part of the first group of participants in Fall 2006, I developed a plan to embed an ethics component in my course in Spring 2007. As students enter their careers, they need to have an understanding not only of energy codes, but also of how to read those codes to help solve complex ethical dilemmas quickly. To do this, they need a background in ethics that will complement the energy code.

Learning goals

  • Students should be familiar with the Architectural Engineering Code of Ethics.
  • Students should have a heightened awareness of ethical issues in the field and in their professional lives.
  • Students should develop a procedure for analyzing ethical situations and making ethical decisions.

Introducing ethics

To prepare students for ethical thinking, I spent one class period presenting a PowerPoint presentation (pdf). The presentation focused primarily on the Professional Code of Ethics as students’ foundation of ethical thinking as future engineers. We also spent time discussing energy codes that have been adopted by many states to minimize the use of natural resources, environmental damage, and costs to consumers. However, I tried to help students understand that the codes were not all-encompassing and that they might need to develop a broader sense of ethics to make quick decisions in a dilemma.

I did not separate out the three ethical approaches (deontological, utilitarian, rights-based), but instead chose to guide students through a decision-making procedure that synthesized all three by presenting a multi-faceted case study. Since this was an embedded course in ethics, this approach allowed me to cover what students will practically need in their future careers without overwhelming them with theory or trying to cover too much in a short class period. Throughout the process, students used the following procedure to help them work out ethical decisions:

  1. Gather facts.
  2. Define ethical issues.
  3. Identify all affected parties.
  4. Identify consequences (positive and negative).
  5. Identify obligations, duties, and rights.
  6. Consider personal character, integrity, and virtues.
  7. Check your gut.
  8. Creatively decide on the proper ethical action.

Students and I spent part of our time discussing the Professional Code and the Energy Code and their importance both legally and as a consistent standard for engineers to follow. I moved on to nine slides that I had developed to help students think about ethical situations in increasingly complex ways. The first slide presented a case:

You as an EIT designer have been hired by an owner to design a hotel. The project design is 75% complete. The owner has asked you to design around lower efficiency equipment than you had planned.

From here, students referred back to the decision-making procedure I had presented earlier to decide whether or not fulfilling the owner’s request was an ethical decision. Each slide after this changed the situation slightly so that students’ original decision in the first slide would be challenged. We discussed what students might do if the equipment failed to meet minimum energy code standards, if the owner threatened to go to another engineering firm, or if they were instructed to manipulate calculations sent to energy code officials. In one slide, we discussed the consequences students might face if they made decisions they felt were ethical only to lose the account to another firm. Finally, we looked at the role of other stakeholders in the case study, such as the principal engineer, the owner, the installation contractor, and the code official.

Applying ethical skills

After we discussed ethics in class, I asked students to take what they had learned from the PowerPoint, from their peers' responses, and from their own thoughts on the case study to evaluate another ethical situation individually. Each student received the following case description:

You are working on a design project and have discovered that the design can be done more efficiently but will require additional coordination between the architect, the contractor and the designer—resulting in more complicated and often more difficult design. The change that allows the design to be more efficient will not result in additional first cost related to the owner. Are you (the E.I.T. designer) ethically obligated to share this information with the owner?

I asked students to evaluate this case according to the decision-making procedure we had used in class, and I created a rubric to guide them through this process. The rubric identified each of the steps and evaluated student performance according to three levels of quality—low, average, and high. Though it included the “Character/integrity” step of the procedure, I felt this category was too subjective to grade and did not assign points to it.

Though there was only a small sample of six students in the Spring 2007 course, their performance in class and on the ethical assignment was generally strong and encouraged me to continue using this embedded structure.

When I introduced the case study in class, students were all able to participate as a small class to debate various ethical solutions as the slides in the PowerPoint progressed. Faced with an increasingly complicated ethical dilemma, students were engaged and able to see ethical ambiguity that helped them in their take-home analyses.

When scoring these written assignments, I gave each student a point value for each of the steps laid out on the rubric and used the margins for additional comments on what they were missing or how they could make their analyses stronger. Student scores included one D (14/21), one C (16/21), one B+ (18.5/21), one A- (19/21) and two As (20/21, 20/21).

The students with the most successful papers were capable of analyzing the ethical situation from perspectives beyond only their own. This means that they considered the impact of ethical decision making on all parties. These top-scoring students were also able to identify the complexity of the ethical dilemma. For more information, please see these examples of student papers:

  • High quality paper 1 (pdf)
  • High quality paper 2 (pdf)
  • Average quality paper (pdf)
  • Low quality paper (pdf)

As senior undergraduates and graduate students enter professional engineering settings, they will frequently be faced with ethical decisions. They will have often have to make these decisions quickly, without the luxury of an instructor or peers to supervise their choices. I felt this embedded ethical component was key in giving students a better basis of understanding ethics and in providing them with a guide when they make their own decisions. The ethical procedure that we used in class is an especially relevant and useful tool that may keep students from making unethical choices or doing what they don’t believe is right. Still, using this tool they will be able to perform a quick analysis of a given situation and make choices that will satisfy them and other stakeholders.

Ethical analysis also affected the course as a whole by reinforcing the criticalness of complying with code. Rather than seeing the code as a series of arbitrary answers to engineering problems, students could see why and how the code worked to prevent unethical practices and how they could read it to guide them in ethical situations.

I felt my PowerPoint presentation and discussion among students in class resulted in effective ethical learning that students’ written assignments reflected. If there is enough time in future semesters, I would like to include more case studies for students to analyze in or out of class. Again, these case studies emphasize the real-world application of codes and allow students to practice ethical decision making before they have to make such choices as professionals.