Big Classes An Asset For Teaching Ethics To Engineering Students

February 01, 1999

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A course that teaches ethics to electrical engineering students at Ohio State University is proving that studying in large class can sometimes enrich learning.

The success of this class may help other institutions design similar courses for large and small classes alike, said Kevin M. Passino, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Passino has been teaching the course at Ohio State every fall since 1991. All undergraduate electrical engineering students are required to take the course, so when Passino took the role of instructor, he had to design a lesson plan for a class of approximately 120 students. In a recent issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Education, he described how he was able to turn the large class size into an advantage.

Passino found three benefits to teaching a large ethics class:
Student misbehavior provides an example of the kind of unprofessionalism that sabotages an engineer's career. For example, Passino said that students taking a class in a large auditorium are tempted to arrive late repeatedly and sneak into class through a side door.

"Every year, someone consistently arrives late and they have no excuse, so I pick on them in front of everybody. They get embarrassed, but I say, "If you're always late and unprepared for office meetings, your boss isn't going to use you as an example -- she's going to dock your pay, or fire you, or maybe you just won't succeed in that company. It's much better that I do this now, right? Passino said.

A large class is more likely to contain people who aren't afraid to speak out. Passino said such students draw others into discussions.

"Typically I act as a moderator," said Passino. "I allow the students to express their beliefs, and then I'll take the opposite view to show both sides of the issue. I'm trying to get them to see all the aspects of a problem so they can reason through it."

Passino said that engineers must learn ethics because many of the products and services they provide for society have a direct impact on the population at large. Electrical engineers must design safe medical equipment or automobile electronics, for example, or electronic devices that don't pollute the environment. For that reason, the course focuses on ethics for practical workplace situations.

Passino said that teaching the large class has worked out for the better. The larger the class, the greater the probability that some students have experienced real ethical problems.

"We use those problems in case studies to enhance the class, and we keep it anonymous. The students know that the person who had the problem could be any one of them. In a sense, when the students discuss the problem, they're giving that person advice," said Passino.

One of the professional issues the students want to discuss is women in engineering. Usually only about 10 to 15 percent of students in the class are female, which mirrors the average electrical engineering workplace. Passino said the class in which they discuss women's issues generates the most heated discussion.

"The dynamic is different than most people would think," he said. "There's no uniformity on this. Individual women have very different views on how they should be treated. And men have different views, too, so it always turns out to be an interesting and informative discussion."

Passino said that while students need to discuss these issues in detail, academic departments are sometimes not sure whether to devote an entire course to ethics, or whether the best teacher would be an electrical engineer or an ethicist.

Passino normally teaches the theoretical aspects of control system engineering, and he believes that ethics must be taught as a separate class to treat the subject in as much detail as possible.

He also believes that the right teacher for the job is one with technical expertise in engineering and a basic understanding of ethics. "We talk about low-level details in technical design, and how they connect with broader issues in ethics. Granted, I'm not a theoretical ethicist, but I'm trying to bridge the gap between engineering and applied ethics."
Written by Pam Frost, 614-292-9475;

Ohio State University

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