An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the State of U.S. Engineering Ethics Education Dissertation

2019-05-14T17:08:03Z (GMT) by Andrew S Katz

There is a large variation in the quantity and quality of ethics that U.S. engineering students learn. Why is there so much room for improving the state of engineering ethics education in the United States? Recognizing the interplay between individual agency, structural factors, and historical contingency, this dissertation is a three-part approach to answering that question – I present three distinct, mutually informative threads for studying engineering ethics education from different angles. The first thread is an historical approach. The second thread is an empirical study of the mental models that faculty members have regarding engineering ethics education. The third thread applies theoretical constructs from political science and economics to analyze structural factors impinging on engineering ethics education.


From the studies, first we see that trailblazers of engineering ethics developed the new knowledge required of this emerging field through interpersonal relationships; they leveraged existing organizations and built new institutional mechanisms for sharing knowledge and creating a community of scholars and an engineering ethics curriculum; they utilized resources from supportive colleagues and administrators to corporate, governmental, and nongovernmental funding that legitimated their work. Their efforts ultimately created pedagogical materials, prevalent ideas, publication outlets, meetings, and foundations that not only contributed to the current state of U.S. engineering ethics education but also the launching point for future generations to build upon and continue developing that state. Second, mapping the mental models of engineering ethics education among engineering faculty members provided a typology for analyzing the state of engineering ethics education and places where one can expect to find variation, deepening our understanding of the state of engineering ethics education. Third, outlining a theory of the political economy of engineering education highlighted factors that could be influencing curricular and pedagogical decisions in engineering departments. Furthermore, I supplemented the outlined theoretical phenomena with data from the mental models interviews in order to provide a proof of concept and relevant grounding for the phenomena.


In sum, faculty members make decisions based on their mental models. Structural factors shape the broader environment and institutions in which those faculty members operate. Those structures and institutions change over time, leading to the current state of engineering ethics education. Having all three pieces has provided a more complete understanding of the state of U.S. engineering ethics education.


Ultimately, my dissertation accomplishes multiple goals. First, I have provided additional evidence for understanding and explaining the qualitative and quantitative discrepancies of engineering ethics coverage in U.S. undergraduate engineering education at multiple levels of analysis. Second, I have amassed evidence that can inform future research efforts. Third, I have demonstrated the use of certain theories and methods infrequently employed in engineering education research. Finally, I have outlined potential new avenues for interdisciplinary research, especially at the nexus of political economy, education, engineering, and society.