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Teaching Ethics

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Teaching Ethics

Season 2 · Episode 9

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How do you teach ethics to engineering students? Guests Dr. Beccy Hambright and Richard Burgess talk about their experience tackling that question, particularly when it comes to students in K-12. They share their history at the Texas Tech University College of Engineering, where they supported students and teachers in engineering and engineering ethics. Hambright ran the Texas STEM Center until 2012, and Burgess teaches engineering ethics classes to students. Hambright and Burgess then discuss the importance of ethics in the field, pedagogical techniques for K-12, the importance of diversity, and project-based learning in class.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Transcript of:

The K12 Engineering Education Podcast


Teaching Ethics

Release Date:



[Pius Wong] The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is supported by awesome listeners who are donating to the show. Help us continue what we’re doing here by pledging to my studio at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.

[opening music fades in]

[Pius] It’s April 24th, 2017, and this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.

[music interlude]

[Pius] I’m Pius Wong, your host, and this time we’ve got two special guests: Dr. Beccy Hambright and Richard Burgess. They were former colleagues at Texas Tech University at the Whitaker College of Engineering and were gracious enough to meet me here in Austin for some breakfast and conversation about better engineering education.

[opening music fades out]

[diner sounds fade in]

[Dr. Beccy Hambright] I’m Dr. Beccy Hambright, and I’m formerly from Texas Tech. I retired in 2012 as the Program Director for the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Center [T-STEM Center] that was located at the College of Engineering at Texas Tech.

[Richard Burgess] And I’m Richard Burgess. I’m an instructor at the Whitaker College of Engineering at Texas Tech, and I work for the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism and National Institute for Engineering Ethics.

[Pius, narration] We sat at a booth at Kerbey Lane Café, an Austin staple that can get busy in the morning, in case you’re wondering about the ambiance. I asked Beccy and Richard first how they met.

[Beccy] It was a fortuitous meeting. We had occasion to do a lot of STEM and engineering ethics – especially engineering ethics – workshops together. The way we initially met was, as the Program Director for the T-STEM Center, we were doing a summer program for the Exxon-Mobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp with fifty students from the Lubbock and South Plains area, and I was trying to pull together STEM associates to come in and provide hands-on project-based learning-driven workshops for all of these students. At the time they were 6, 7, and 8th graders.  So we’re talking a completely – We’re talking that kind of an audience, for two weeks, residential camp.  Rich was kind enough to come in and provide the engineering portion. That evolved into an engineering ethics relationship that he and I have had now for a long time.

[Richard] Yeah.

[Pius] And Rich, were you ready to handle a bunch of junior high schoolers?

[Richard] No, because at the time my son was still elementary-aged, and so, yeah, it was a bit of a – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and actually I found it in some ways more intimidating than going in front of my group of undergraduates that I teach. That was a comfort zone for me, and I was like, oh boy, what are these junior high kids going to be like? Are they going to get any of my pop culture references? Things like that. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, actually, but I think I found a groove eventually with them.

[Pius] Beccy, it sounded like it turned out OK, because you guys did a lot of work for a long time, right?

[Beccy] We wound up with really good numbers for our camp. It was out first ever that year. We did get funding for the next year, so I guess it turned out OK. [laughs] We had fun.

[fade out]

[Pius] So Rich, you focused on engineering ethics at those workshops and just in general at Texas Tech. Even though you weren’t formally trained to deal with younger kids, I’m just curious: How did you get into that field in the first place, teaching engineering ethics?

[Richard] [laughs] So I’d love to tell you that I’ve felt a noble calling and went to engineering ethics, but it all started out with me being a poor graduate student, and I was a graduate student at Texas Tech and needed to earn a little extra money. The Murdough Center was looking for someone to do some grading for their engineering ethics course, and so I started doing that, but I very rapidly realized how important it was and how interesting it was and how broad it was, and so I ended up falling in love with it.  But my motivation initially was just to make a little extra money, doing a little grading on the side to supplement my income.

[Pius] That sounds like a very meta-ethical situation in general.  Because you a philosophy student then?

[Richard] That’s right. I know this will come as a shock to your audience, but philosophy graduate students don’t make a lot of money, and I had a young son at the time, so I was looking to make a little extra money. I found the idea of extra cash appealing. So yeah.

[Pius] And I’m going to talk about engineering ethics in more detail shortly. I just wanted to ask you, Beccy: What other things did the T-STEM Center do, and what did you do over there?

[Beccy] Oh wow. Yeah. At that time there were seven T-STEM Centers located throughout the state of Texas that were under the umbrella of the TEA [Texas Education Agency]. So we were charged with, in the beginning, providing these camps, workshops, and projects and programs like robotics and for students. And at the time we had engineering outreach that sent engineering undergrad students and graduate students into classrooms in the Lubbock schools. So we had a very successful engineering outreach program for several years. Then the focus of the T-STEM Centers changed with the changes with TEA, and so then our focus became on training and technical assistance for the teachers. Most of my job revolved around professional development, trainings for teachers, and to go on to do site visits to campuses and provide those kinds of resources for the teachers. Because at that point in time, STEM was brand new. I started in 2007. And the initiative rolled out in 2006, so we were just on the cutting edge of all things new in Texas for STEM. There were a lot – It changed a lot all the time, but we did a lot of camps. We did a lot of robotics. We did a lot of professional development. We did podcasts and seminars, web seminars. So lots of summer professional development for teachers on campus, and conferences. So it was just a busy time in STEM.

[fade out]

[Pius] Since you did a whole lot of things, how did you see a need for engineering ethics education? How did you know that kids needed to learn about it or teachers needed to know about it? I feel that it could get lost amongst all the other robotics and everything else.

[Beccy] It so absolutely could. I think probably a lot of this is because of my age. Rich and I were talking about this last night. I’m a grandmother now. Those soft skills that we seem to know back in the day that we taught our kids are not as pervasive now, especially now that I’m helping with my grandson’s kindergarten class, you know, and I see that kids don’t understand the concepts of compassion as much, empathy, and work ethic, and those things that we’re seeing on the university campus kids have not gotten through their growth years. You know I would love to say that a lot of it goes back to because teachers have been so involved with teaching to the test. That’s always the problem, teaching to the test, that they don’t have time to teach those soft skills. Maybe that’s part of it. Part of it may be that we have parents especially, and the diverse parents that we’re seeing, parents who have to work maybe two jobs. And so there’s not that time around the dinner table where you can teach kids how to be empathetic. So I see the engineering ethics piece as providing a really strategic focus on what our kids need to learn about what ethics is. Not just engineering ethics. Academic ethics. Professional ethics. Personal ethics. Integrity. Those skills that can’t be texted.

[Pius] Yeah, Rich, I think that you’re the philosophical expert here. Since we’re getting on the topic, what is ethics, and what is engineering ethics?

[Richard] There are a lot of ways to define ethics. One of the ones I like to use for the sake of concision is: Ethics is the science of morality. What I like about that definition is a couple things. First of all, it draws a distinction between ethics and morality. Morality is oftentimes the values that we have been raised with, whether through out family or friends or through our communities or religious institutions, and so on and so forth. And ethics is about examining that, carefully and critically examining that, wondering: Is this a good value? Is this a correct description of the world around us? Is this how we ought to live? Obviously the central question. So engineering ethics to my mind is looking at how those issues come up in the context of engineering and computer science. Let me be clear. I’m being a little sloppy here. There is certainly a whole separate domain of computer ethics. At Texas Tech our computer science department is part of the College of Engineering, and so when we teach engineering ethics, we teach to both computer science and engineering students. We’re very careful to try to include issues that computer scientists specifically are going to face so it’s not just a series of case studies on bridges that have fallen down or something like that. We want to try to offer content that everyone can relate to or anticipate that they’ll come across at some point.

[Pius] Can you describe how one of your classes looks like? What do your students do in an engineering ethics class?

[Richard] So I’m not a big fan of just getting up and talking the whole time, you know being the sage on stage. Sometimes you have to lecture a decent amount just to get the material out, but I often try to engage my students with questions. You know, the good old-fashioned Socratic method. Why do you believe that? And continuing that back-and-forth. I try to get my other students to do the same things to each other, because that’s really how we get to the nub of things, is this dialectic, this back-and-forth, and that critical analysis.  So I like to roll out materials, some fundamental principles, and everything like that, and then we’ll move into discussions of those principles.  Why is this the correct view, or why isn’t it the correct view, and kind of go from there.

[Pius] It sounds like you’re trying to incorporate a little bit of project-based learning, something a little more active learning, I guess. Is that the term?

[Richard] Yeah. I think in engineering ethics what constitutes a project is a little different. We don’t have a tangible project we can work on because the nature of our subject is a little more abstract in some ways. But yeah, absolutely. I think an active, participatory learning model is what I want to see. That’s where students are going to get the best practice. And make no mistake about it: I have grown as a function of my interaction with my students. This is not a one-way interaction. My students get me to see the world differently, and I encourage them to challenge my views, as well, so I definitely benefited from those interactions as well.

[Pius] How long again have you been teaching this subject then?

[Richard] I’ve been teaching engineering ethics now for – It’s been about ten-plus years of just engineering ethics and then teaching ethics in one form or another, studying and teaching ethics – It’s been almost twenty years, I’d say. Fifteen to twenty years between studying and teaching, for sure. I should know more than I do. I should be better at it than I am. [laughs]

[Pius] That’s funny that you say that, because a lot of professional engineers that I know may not have studied officially engineering ethics as much as you have, so that brings me to the question of: Why is it important to actually teach students that? Because some people assume that engineers will just pick it up as we go.

[Richard] Well, so I think the first thing that has to be dispelled is the myth that teaching engineering ethics somehow implies that the student is a bad person and that this is a corrective action. Engineering ethics applies even if you’re a totally great person, because most of the problems, most of the ethical issues that come up in engineering are not good versus evil, in my view. It’s mostly about competing goods. We want to see economic benefit, but we also want to make sure we have environmental consideration, for example. As far as the importance, I think there are a couple ways to answer that. One way is: This is what the profession expects. There’s a professional code of ethics. If you’re a professional engineer then state licensing boards have legally binding ethical expectations. But I think more important than any of that is just to recognize that, probably more than any other profession, engineers have the most impact modern day living. If you live in even a semi-developed situation, the roads you use, the cars you use, the machines that you interact with, the electronic devices you have, the hospital equipment you’re exposed to – all of this has had an engineer’s hand in it. So that disproportionate ability to impact people is exactly why we need to be mindful of our ethical obligations. We can have this outsized impact on the world around us, and so we need to be mindful and careful about that.

[Beccy] From a STEM perspective, it’s a little bit different. There’s a little bit different distinction, especially in STEM, because we do use project-based learning so much, hands-on. One of the key aspects of that is the engineering design process, insomuch that we’re all engineers, no matter what you do. When STEM first rolled out, when we were talking about, you know, this engineering design process, engineers were people that drove trains, and that was it. That was the mindset. So now with the engineering design process, there are these steps that – There’s a whole process on how to design, to use engineering design, and how that needs to look, and why you need to pay attention. One of the things that I have found a very important in using that engineering design process and the whole aspect of ethics in that is that kids now don’t want to make any mistakes, and if they think they’re going to make a mistake, they’re not going to try. They just shut down, which is not what engineers can do. You fail, and you go back and redesign. That’s a huge piece in the engineering design process. So you’re expected to fail. I mean, we want you to fail, in the sense that you need to go back and redesign this and make it look better. And I know you want to say something on that.

[Richard] I want to add to that.  So I’m really glad you bring up the engineering design process, because I think the ideal scenario in terms of how we’re teaching engineering ethics involves incorporating ethical questions in the design steps, themselves, embedding it in the process, as opposed to treating it as a kind of beta-stage, penultimate kind of condition, right? What I want to see is using that design process, and at every step we have sort of concurrent ethical questions or considerations. So I’m really glad you bring that up.

[Beccy] So when kids are getting that at an early age, for what we’ve done in K-12, we know when we start STEM, and you start this one when they’re little in elementary, by the time they get to Rich, they know what we’re talking about, that, yes, we want you to redesign this, because the more times you redesign, the better this is going to be, and here’s the reason why, and the impact that’s going to have not only on them professionally but academically and personally.  To me, that’s one of the really impactful reasons that we need to concentrate on ethics in the process beginning at such an early age, which is why working with K-12 students was always such a passion for me.

[Richard] Our great hope, I think – and there’s some reason to believe that it’s got legs on it – is that ethics can open engineering up to people that might not have thought about engineering before. So I think there’s very much this mentality that engineering is just about applied mathematics and physics. And that’s certainly part of the equation. But engineering is also this opportunity to help people. It’s also this opportunity to improve the circumstances around us or to lessen our impact on the environment, and so that appeals to a whole group of people, I think, that otherwise might have written engineering off. I’m actually one of those people. I mean, I have two degrees in philosophy, and after a couple of years working in the College of Engineering, I decided I wanted to pursue a PhD in engineering, because I saw this great power and promise in engineering, and I wanted to be part of that dialogue in a direct sort of way. So I started slowly working on a PhD in Systems and Engineering Management. But I’m no math genius. I just had to get in and work hard at it. But what motivates me is this ability to improve the circumstances of the people around me or the environment around me.

[musical interlude]

[Pius] Now the question is, especially for teachers listening, how do we do it? So can you give me any examples of successful programs or even case studies that you have used to teach ethics?

[Richard] So in engineering ethics, there’s a lot of historic cases that are very popular to talk about. It’s part of what grew engineering ethics and made it a cogent discipline. So very popular case studies include the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster, the Pinto situation, the Hyatt Regency collapse. More recently, of course, we’ve got VW. We’ve got the Gulf oil spill, all kinds of interesting things to talk about. But to me there’s a caution that needs to go with using case studies. So when we look at case studies where we have the benefit of hindsight, and we have the privilege of consequences, it’s very easy to armchair quarterback what should have been done, and when we’re removed from the situation, it’s also very easy to again sort of prescribe what should happen. Those disasters are important teachable moments, but we don’t want our engineers to wait until there’s a disaster and go: “My bad! What can we learn from that?” We want them to anticipate and head problems off at the pass. And so just looking at case studies where we have the full knowledge, the hindsight – That’s not very helpful, necessarily. So what I’ve done with the classes I teach at the undergrad level and what I’ve tried to do with K-12 kids is to pick more open-ended cases or to choose a problem, versus a discrete case. One of the ones I really like using is looking at electronic waste. So we have a growing level of electronic waste in the world, and, you know, in this country we have people that are getting rid of phones every year because they’re just sick of it or whatever. We’ve all had the old CRT monitor that we laugh at now – those things were ginormous – those things have to go somewhere. If it doesn’t, say, go into a landfill, then it’s being piled up somewhere, and a lot of times in the US is shipping this off to some other country, and it’s sort of “out of sight, out of mind” for us. But there are really serious environmental problems associated with this. There are justice issues associated with this, because, let’s say there are kids that are breaking down the computers to get valuable components and materials, they’re getting exposed to lead and mercury. There’s all kinds of health issues. So I like using a problem like that, because it doesn’t have a neat solution. The boundaries between what an engineer’s responsibility, what a computer scientist’s responsibility, and what a consumer’s responsibility – are not neat and tidy, but those are exactly the kinds of problems that we need our computer scientists and our engineers engaged in and thinking about. Ethics should ultimately – especially engineering ethics – should ultimately be proactive, not reactive.

[Pius] And how do you have your students display their knowledge of that? How do you assess them? Do they write papers? Do they have discussions? And then how should K-12 students present their knowledge?

[Richard] So in the undergraduate class that I teach, we do that a couple different ways. We have the classroom discussions that I hinted at earlier.  My students write probably more than they care to do. But in ethics, when we’re evaluating educational outcomes in ethics, we’re not necessarily looking at the particulars of their position. We’re not judging the position and saying, oh I agree with this, or I don’t agree with this. What we’re primarily interested in is the reasoning process that got them there. What kind of arguments have they constructed in support of their position? Have they thought about potential counterarguments to their position? And so on. We want them to do that critical thinking. The way to encourage that is to get people to build an argument that can stand up to scrutiny and careful examination. So yes, they do writing, they do classroom discussions, that kind of a thing. What we’ve done in the K through 12 domain is: We’ve had some success with giving them an open-ended problem to solve and having discussion, and the kids have to present their results. One of the things we did in the context of Bernard Harris, the Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, was that they had to make the case for space exploration. And so they put together a PowerPoint slide, but what they had to do was say, yes, this is going to be costly from an economic perspective, but here are the benefits of doing so, and they had to address in that same presentation the social and ethical issues that come up with space exploration. And it was – I can’t stress this enough – It was all integrated together. It was embedded in that alongside the technical questions. I think just treating ethics as just this discrete afterthought is problematic, whereas if you weave it together, what you’re teaching students is that ethics is just as important to engineering as is math, science, and all the other disciplines.

[Beccy] From the classroom perspective on all this, the teachers are charged with teaching to standards, you know. We know the T test – the thing I mentioned earlier – They’re all familiar with that. But we know they have to teach to College and Career Readiness standards, and they have to teach to 21st Century Learning and Habits of the Mind, and all these things that are a part of – in addition to their content – standards. So they have all of these standards that they are required to adhere to in order to do this, and that’s a lot. That’s a lot to think about. But, like Rich said, that can be – That’s why project-based learning has been successful, I think, because it does incorporate all that. It’s a conglomerate of all of those things together, but not everybody has – Not all teachers have the resources available to them, especially where we’re from in small, rural schools. It’s really difficult to be able to have somebody to come out and do professional development.

[Pius] I was wondering.

[Beccy] Yeah. Unless you’re a part of the STEM network, or you have a Texas Tech University or UT [The University of Texas] or UTD [The University of Texas at Dallas] or one of those that’s nearby so that the teachers have that. The service centers provide a lot of training for that, but as far as to come to your campus and give you one-on-one for how to incorporate that in the classroom, it’s really hard. So there have been – It’s so nice now that teachers can actually do podcasts, and they can do – There’s so much available to them for let’s say 21st Century Learning skills. Those types of things teach kids communication skills. Teach the teachers, too, but then they can use what they learn in the 21st Century Learning skills for problem-solving and research and rigor and relevance and all those things that are so important to be able to incorporate all of this into their classroom strategies and the 21st Century Learning skills.  And especially the College and Career Readiness – now that includes life readiness. So I have seen in especially the last couple of years that instead of the catchphrase for the College and Career learning that leads kids onto campuses, there are a lot of students that either can’t afford or don’t want to spend that much time on college. They have a propensity for career. But more than that, what we see – that’s where the ethics portion comes in – is life readiness, those life readiness skills. And that’s just a panorama of things that can be taught through teamwork. Especially in engineering, a lot of kids don’t like to do the team projects. At school we know that, because there’s always one that doesn’t want to have to work, and one that wants to do too much. Those kinds of classroom strategies that teachers can use, and again project-based learning, just guides that narrative for that – teaches those kinds of skills, because we know that once you get into the real world, you’re going to have to be a team player, and you’re going to have to take instruction, and you’re going to have to show up for work on time, and you can’t ask for a raise within the first six months. We talked about that last time when we were talking about these questions. You know, the mindset has got to be: You have to have honesty, integrity, ethics, and the kids can learn that through these programs and projects. Robotics is a really great way to learn some of those skills, those life skills, because it has to be a team sport, you know? It’s got to be a team. Rocketry was one that was very successful on the Tech campus that we had, our rocketry program. You can’t do that by yourself. So those are all ways that teachers can incorporate these ideas not only into classroom instruction, but it also addresses the assessment that they have to have to meet the standards that they have to teach to.

[Richard] I would add that it’s all well and good, I think, to recognize that this is important to incorporate into the classroom. I think to your earlier point few people would disagree with that. I know Beccy and I both have a deep and abiding respect for K through 12 teachers and the challenges that they’re up against, and here we are saying, yeah, we know you already have too much to do, here’s one more thing you don’t have time to do.

[Beccy] That’s exactly right.

[Richard] So I’m very sympathetic to that, and I think one of the ways to overcome that is to basically sort of sneak the ethics content in there, even just asking the question: How’s this going to affect other people? It doesn’t have to be, in other words, this really long, drawn-out additional module or content of information. I think even just asking a couple really well-formulated questions along the way can really start to get to some of those outcomes that we’re talking about. One of the things that we learned in some of the work that we did together is, sometimes it’s better to talk about ethics without using the word ethics, because when you say “ethics” to people, either, with this audience, they don’t necessarily know what you mean by ethics, or it’s very loaded, and different people have different understandings. I’ve developed five questions in the context of the robotics work that we did, just to get people thinking and talking about ethics, and the word “ethics” doesn’t show up in any of the five questions.

[Pius] What are the five questions?

[Richard] So I’ll try to paraphrase them. [laughs] I’ll make material available if it’s helpful to the audience. But basically it’s, you know, what kinds of materials are needed to create this technology? What do we need to maintain it? What kinds of energy and material inputs do we need to maintain the technology? And then another question is: Who’s going to use this technology? Who’s the target audience for this technology? And then a third question would be: Who else is affected by this technology? Maybe besides the intended user, if someone lives next to – your audience can’t tell this, but I’m bald – so if I live next to a factory that makes hairbrushes, right, I’m not really going to benefit from that, but I might still be affected by that factory. And then I like people to – The fourth question would be: What else is affected? This is to get to environmental impacts. How does this affect animals? How does this affect the inanimate environment? And then finally the fifth question is: What do we do with this technology or this new thing that we’ve created once it’s obsolete or once we’re done with it? So we try to get to, in other words, a kind of life-cycle span of all of this. Again, in all of this, the word ethics doesn’t come up. So these are just questions that can be woven into the project to start getting at ethics without hopefully making the teachers feel like they’re – You know they’re already feeling many times, I’m sure, overloaded, and I don’t want to add to that. So that’s one way to do that.

[Pius] Those are some great examples, because, for me, not even being a teachers, it sounds very much like design process questions that you’d start asking from the start.

[Beccy] Yes, it definitely is. One of the other things that I have found very interesting as far as the diversity of what you’re talking about – People come at these projects and at this understanding from so many different points of view, and a lot of it depends on race or gender or age or other – your academic background. There’s all kinds of cultural aspects that you come at these questions with, and if you’ve not had an open mindset – We talked about that last night. If for some reason you’ve had a bad experience in some cultural aspect, and you feel like you’ve been put on the spot, that can cause a lot of angst from the very beginning of this process. So if you can open it up the way is Rich is talking about, especially the kids – because Leander, here, is considered a destination district, and that just means there’s a lot of diversity, and we know in the Austin area, lots of diversity in this, so there’s a lot of perspectives coming into the classroom. And that’s just one more thing that the teachers have got to look at, and say, oh my God, I’ve got this kid, ESL student and special needs student mainstreamed, and all these things. How do I incorporate this? And I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how the teachers do it. My hat goes off to them every day that I volunteer, and I’m just at the kindergarten level of volunteering, and I still go home exhausted. But I can see that the way that they have crafted their lesson plans can include the things that Rich is talking about without adding anything extra. And now that is a state requirement.

[Pius] Yeah.

[Beccy] Now instead of the assessments for teachers being so focused on the teachers themselves, it’s more individual student-focused, and that’s hard, that’s hard to do, when you’ve got twenty, twenty-two kids that have got your time. So all these strategies are, I think, can be pulled together in such a fashion that it makes it – hopefully, it makes it easier for teachers to incorporate it. These soft skills that we’re talking about. And I don’t consider ethics a soft skill [laughs]. I consider it more of – It’s a life skill. It’s life skill.

[Pius] So that’s still encouraging that teachers can incorporate it without adding too much of a burden, but another challenge that seems possible to me relates to that diversity. We’ve got kids in our classrooms that are diverse today, especially in a college classroom with hundreds of kids. To me, I’m just wondering, is it fair to be concerned that that diversity could be challenging when it comes to teaching ethics? Because like you said, maybe I am coming from a different point of view, or I have different ethical standards compared to my professor or my classmates, and we won’t agree on things. How – First of all, is that even a valid concern?

[Richard] Well, it certainly makes things messier, right? When you have a variety of different perspectives coming up.  But messy is not bad in this case. Messy is actually good. I think that – Look, we live in a pluralistic society, so people had better get used to being exposed to different points of view and being able to talk about that in a civil way to be sure, but also in a way that hopefully exposes them to new truths. Or sometimes being exposed to a different point of view helps us better understand – We don’t change our own position, but we better understand why we believe it. So I do agree that when you have different people coming from a variety of different backgrounds, it definitely creates some initial messiness and a little bit of challenge of trying to reconcile all those things, but I think the key to success is to be able to pivot and use that as an opportunity to facilitate discussions. OK, why does this person believe that, and why does that person believe that? And one of the things that Beccy and I have talked about over the years is that, actually, that’s one way to produce greater empathy and diversity in a good way, because you start to see this person that you thought was very different from you actually holds very similar values. Maybe they express them differently, but they actually at the end of the day still want many of the same things that you want. So when you have that initial sort of dialectic or disagreement, you actually – and you stick with it and get down to it – you start to see that, OK, there’s actually some similarities and whatnot. There’s a kind of – You start to decrease the otherness that is so problematic, and obviously we are living in a time, in this country, of great divisiveness and whatnot. This ability to hear other people’s positions and understand where they’re coming from and genuinely hear it and listen to it is more important than ever. So I think that diversity is helpful in that regard.

[Pius] Does it result in engineering? Better products and all that stuff?

[Richard] I would certainly say so. I think that part of the reason that we’re so concerned about representation in STEM disciplines is: There’s a question of fairness. But there’s also a question of that’s how the discipline gets better. When you have people who see the world differently, that’s how you improve. That’s how you move the paradigm. And if everyone thinks because they were all raised under the same sort of ideology or the same sort of technical paradigm, then we’re always going to get the same outcomes. But when you come in with someone from a different point of view, and they look at a problem completely differently, we get all kinds of great innovative solutions to things that we didn’t see before. So the reason we want more women and more underrepresented groups in engineering isn’t just for fairness. It’s because we want to make engineering and computer science and STEM disciplines better. More resilience.

[Beccy] I have a “for instance” for you. One of the programs that we did for STEM for a long time, for years and years and it’s still ongoing now, is our math-science competitions and our robotics competitions. What came to mind when you were talking about that was the math-science competition that our kids were involved in for several years. In dividing up the teams, the students were divided not just among their own age group, but there were sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, ninth graders. High schoolers were together with high schoolers, but for the engineering design portion of that, they were all thrown in together. There might be a sixth-grader and a ninth-grader designing the same thing at the same time. What was interesting to me at the time that we were doing that is that some of those sixth-graders were thinking outside that box, and I still remember vividly one sixth-grader who was very shy, very shy. Came from a different culture, you know, was not prone to talk, but was very interested in this particular design, and he actually out-talked a ninth-grader, and they used his design, and they went on to place in the competition. And I still remember talking to that sixth-grader, and he was just amazed that they used his design over a ninth-grader. So it gave such credibility to this young man, because not only did they have to communicate – that was part of the criteria, teamwork, communication, you’ve got to listen, it’s going to be scored this way – but they shared their ideas so openly that even though the older kid had a great idea, the group decided that the younger student was the one who had the most valid design for that process. And what that meant to him – We’ve had that happen a lot with students. I’ve seen that happen a lot on campuses. When campuses have done their own kinds of competitions, especially math and science clubs and competitions, where kids have a better opportunity to think outside, you know, and share their ideas and communicate – That’s one “for instance” that I can think of that was rousing success as far as that diversity and being able to – for kids to be able to share their own ideas and not be afraid that their perception – just because I’m younger or older or whatever the reason – the rationale is that you might not listen to me – it didn’t matter, because they wanted to win. That was the whole point at that point. They wanted the trophy. You can leverage that in the classroom.

[Pius] So we’re talking about diversity in engineering. We’re talking about teaching ethics in engineering. Are there any resources that you know of that teachers, especially K-12 teachers can look to, to learn more about it?

[Beccy] Well, there are still six T-STEM centers available throughout the state, and that’s all online. So you know, those T-STEM centers. All of the service centers throughout the state have got some excellent programs. The universities all have – almost every university that I know of has great K-12 professional development for teachers, but also opportunities for the kids. I know in the Austin area, there’s the Texas Alliance for Minorities in Engineering is here. The Pickle Research Center has a lot if you’re in this area. Texas Tech has a lot. South Plains College. Western State in Snyder, even. And those small community colleges have so much available to the teachers. And if they just reach out to whoever is the closest to them, there’s a lot available. And then a lot online, too. And call Rich. [laughs]

[Richard] That’s right. It might take me a little bit to get back.


[Richard] In addition to that, the Murdough Center has made much of its material available for free, no problems. I definitely encourage any teachers out there to reach out to me. Call me. Email me. I will send you my material that I’ve developed over the years, or I’m happy to have conversations about how to approach this. If you just go to the – If you just Google Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism at Texas Tech, you’ll see our web page. Pius, I can provide you with the links. People are certainly welcome to any of the resources I’ve developed, and I’m, like I said, happy to answer questions.

[Beccy] One more thing that might be helpful. I keep referencing project-based learning. One of the best websites for teachers to go to that has a lot of free information is the Buck Institute at bie.org. They have a lot of free information. The Teaching Channel has a lot of free information. The Khan Institute has a lot of free information.

[Pius] That’s interesting. Do the Buck Institute and the other Institutions – Do they incorporate ethics into the design process already, or is that something you have to look for specifically?

[Beccy] I’m thinking no. For the Buck Institute, I’ve used their material a lot, and it is the engineering design process, but as far as engineering ethics, per se, if it’s there, I don’t remember seeing it. But it would be very easy – I mean, that’s what we did.

[Richard] Yeah.

[Beccy] We incorporated it whenever we did our workshops and programs. We just took the project-based learning base and developed what we needed for our kids. One last thing that I think needs to be thrown out there is how important it is to do a needs assessment, a really credible needs assessment for your campus or your class, your professional development, whoever’s going to be there. You do your research. You gather the data – who it is that you’re going to be talking to and what they’ve been through and what they have available – before you just go and say this is going to work for you. You need to know exactly where they are in the process. Even a simple needs assessment, much like the five questions that Rich was asking – A needs assessment of a class helps develop whatever curriculum and instruction method needs to happen there.

[Pius] Are there any other things you’d like to plug or any news from the Murdough Center for example? And there doesn’t have to be.


[Richard] Let me think if I have anything else to add. I guess, there are certainly other ethics centers out there. We’re not the only ones doing engineering ethics, and that’s encouraging, because we need a diverse look at this. There’s an online ethics center that people can take a look at. National Academy of Engineering has some important stuff to take a look at. Those are some important places to go to, as well.

[Pius] OK, thank you. So I think that is the last question I’m going to have for now. We recorded for quite a while. But I wanted to say thank you again to my two guests from Texas Tech University originally. We have Rich Burgess and also Dr. Beccy Hambright who’s an engineering education consultant right now. So thank you.

[Beccy] Thank you.

[Closing music fades in]

[Pius] What are your thoughts on how to teach engineering ethics? Let me know on the show’s Twitter @k12engineering, or at my Twitter handle @PiusWong. Subscribe to and share the show on all the podcast players, because it is everywhere, and help me out by writing a review if you can. That will help others find the show. All the details are at www.k12engineering.net.

[Pius] Out closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor under a Create Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs, my studio, and you can support my studio Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.

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[Pius] Hey. Just want to say thank you to the many people who’ve already bought my book, Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games. That’s pretty awesome. Did that as a little experiment, and turns out some people are interested. So that is pretty cool. And if you’re interested in an in-person training of those types of concepts, and you’re around Austin or Texas, send me a message, and that’ll help me do my customer needs analysis. That’s all. Thanks for your support. Later.

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