Are college and graduate level computer science/engineering classes including "ethics 101" in their curriculums. I'm interested if there's a trend towards teaching engineers about ethical frameworks as they increasingly work on technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, autonomous vehicles, bioscience etc
Hello! Thanks for your question about ethics in engineering programs. The short version is that there are no current figures available on the number of graduate and undergraduate programs offering or requiring ethics classes in engineering, there is some older information available regarding undergraduate ethics courses. Below you will find a deep dive of my findings.
To answer your question, I first looked at the professional societies for engineering education and accreditation. However, without being a paying member of one of those groups, reports of the precise numbers of programs requiring a course in ethics, if they exist, were unavailable. There is a study from 2000 that gives statistics about teaching ethics in engineering; in order to evaluate the probability that those statistics are consistent with current practices, I took a sample of accredited undergraduate and graduate programs and checked the requirements of the highest rated undergraduate.
In a study older than I would ordinarily include, published in 2000, a researcher found that of 242 undergraduate programs listed in the American Society for Engineering Education:
- Fewer than 27 percent required students to take any ethics-related courses.
- 7.1 percent required two or more courses.
- 9.8 percent required one course devoted to ethics or related topics.
- 10.2 percent required a course that mentions ethics along with other topics.
Although this study has been cited as recently as this year, there does not appear to be any student updating this data. In order to get an idea of what the current statistics might be, I reviewed current curriculums of two different samples.
Out of a random sample of the United States undergraduate programs accredited by ABET, only 9 percent offered formal ethics classes. If you include programs that require classes that include an ethics component, this figure rises to 16 percent. Since you did ask specifically about issues relating to artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and bioscience, when there were several engineering degrees offered, I looked at the degrees that would relate most closely to those issues. These numbers indicate that, if anything, there are fewer formal courses in engineering programs now than there were when the 2000 study was conducted.
However, the engineering programs of the most prestigious schools may be more indicative of trends. Of the ten most highly rated US undergraduate programs in engineering, four offered some form of ethics class; at two of the universities, I could not access the course list without being enrolled as a student.
Of the four offering some form of ethics course, MIT offers an elective course in ethics for engineers. Georgia Tech has a general ethics requirement rather than a specific engineering ethics requirement, although it does offer a course in engineering ethics. Carnegie Mellon has a course that has an element of ethics in it, but does not have a course dedicated to ethics. Cornell University has a course designated as Ethical Issues in Engineering Practice, but, despite the name, appears to be largely devoted to legal rather than philosophical issues.
At least four out of ten, though, is a larger percentage than the random sample produced: 40 percent. This suggests that the trend may be toward including ethics in the curriculum, although none of the four schools had a required course exclusively dedicated to ethics in engineering.
Not only is there a lack of solid statistics regarding the number of programs offering a formal ethics class in their engineering curriculum, there is no authoritative information regarding trends in including ethics in engineering program. A 2012 U.S. News and World Report article states that there is a trend toward including ethics in graduate engineering programs, but does not provide any statistics nor does it address undergraduate programs.
One complicating factor is that ethics may be taught by integrating it into the curriculum in ways other than a formal course. ABET does not mandate an ethics course, just that one of the student outcomes is "an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility." One 2006 article lists eight different ways to teach ethics, and argues that a formal class is not the solution; rather, the author advocates integrating ethics across the curriculum. This approach requires the entire faculty to address ethical questions as they arise in their courses.
Also of interest is that the National Science Foundation has funded an online resource for engineering educators which supports ethics education, the Online Ethics Center. This could be interpreted as a response to a perceived need for ethics education or to an increased interest in ethics education among engineering educators. In a similar vein, the National Academy of Engineers published a 2016 book called "Infusing Ethics into the Development of Engineers" aimed at assisting professors in higher education.
To wrap it up, it appears that relatively few engineering programs are offering engineering ethics courses. However, there are some indicators that suggest a trend toward integrating ethics into engineering education.
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