Complexity, right action, and the engineering curriculum

Alan Cheville, R., Heywood, J., Engineering, Unleashed, Ieee, Xplore and Keysight, Technologies (2020) Complexity, right action, and the engineering curriculum. 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference, ASEE 2020, 2020-J.


Today's engineering students face a very different world than their predecessors. As engineering has adapted to a more global and interconnected economy, the issues that face today's engineers have become more complex. In a highly networked world notions of the impact of an engineer's actions on others, the basis for moral and ethical behavior, also become more complex. The definition of complex used here captures higher-order and emergent behaviors, situations that can change rapidly, limitations to predictability, and behavior arising from interactions rather than innate to components. While ethics has remained central to engineering education and in general has retained its deontological basis, this paper questions whether the basis for engineering ethics has changed over time and can be expected to change in the future. The fact that the future ethical challenges engineering students will face will be distributed and complex while most engineering curricula focus on simplified systems and decisions indicates emerging challenges for effectively addressing engineering ethics within the curriculum. Frameworks that distinguish simple and complicated from complex systems-in which outcomes are more uncertain-emphasize that action becomes more important than knowledge. In other words, it is more important to do what is right, even if one's actions are imperfect, than know what is right to do. This paper explores the intersection of engineering curricula and engineering ethics from the perspective of right action, that is being able in act in ways that lead to moral outcomes. It is argued that by focusing predominately on knowledge and situating learning in academic settings engineering curricula miss opportunities for developing capabilities for action. Through this lens the opportunities to address engineering ethics in the curriculum are seen to lie predominately outside traditional coursework. © American Society for Engineering Education 2020.

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