Improving Engineering Ethics Education

March 5, 2024

Caitlin Grady

Engineers today hold key roles in shaping our world and driving innovation. Their prominent role in tackling society’s grand challenges makes it critical for educators to train future engineers across all disciplines who are not just technically proficient but also more ethical and globally aware individuals. In a project supported by the National Science Foundation, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering Caitlin Grady is working to advance the understanding of best practices in engineering curricula for teaching engineering ethics to ensure all students develop a broad moral agency.

The project, “Engaged student learning through coupled ethical-epistemic pedagogy,” aims to answer the question of how educators can better equip future engineers to act ethically and understand the broad societal implications of their work. To do so, Grady is taking a novel approach to teaching engineering ethics by bringing coupled ethical-epistemic analysis from the field of philosophy and reflective practice from the field of cognitive design theory to the field of engineering education. She will study the effectiveness of leveraging reflective practice, already used in engineering ethics education, alongside new methodology, coupled ethical-epistemic analysis.

“This form of analysis is when we try to understand why people make the decisions they make, asking questions like, is it based on their intuition, some type of data, or perhaps deeply held personal beliefs?” said Grady. “It helps us isolate factors contributing to our mental decision-making calculus so that we can learn something about what is informing choices around decisions.”

At GW Engineering, new educational strategies using coupled ethical-epistemic analysis will be piloted in undergraduate classrooms and research environments across multiple engineering disciplines. Faculty not directly involved in the research stage will also be trained in these new methods to foster a ripple effect. Through these efforts, this project will answer the following questions:

  1. Does undergraduate research using coupled ethical-epistemic analysis influence the development of moral agency in undergraduate engineering students?
  2. Can coupled ethical-epistemic pedagogy in the classroom influence the development of moral agency in undergraduate engineering students?
  3. To what degree does variation in instructor and topic influence the efficacy of coupled ethical-epistemic analysis in undergraduate engineering courses?

The project’s outcomes will include, open-source teaching tools, training materials, and research about best practices in engineering ethics education. By testing new approaches for cultivating engineers who are aware of and engaged with the ethical dimensions of their work, Grady is aiding GW Engineering in developing an engineering workforce that values and serves societal interests.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to bridge both research and teaching through this new project. I can’t wait to work with undergraduate research students, students in my classes, and faculty around campus on key challenges across engineering ethics education,” Grady stated.