Enhancing Ethical Context in the CoE Curriculum


Catalyzed by generous support from UI CoE alumnus James Whiteley in 2019, a 5-year initiative has been established to re-envision the ethical training of all CoE students throughout their careers at the UI, with the goal of training engineers prepared to deal with the ethical challenges inherent in the practice of Engineering in all subfields in the 21st century. This effort recognizes the increasingly complex world of system design brought about by advanced technology exemplified by emerging fields such as data science and artificial intelligence. A broad spectrum of issues ranging from physical safety and security of devices and systems, to privacy and fairness in the digital age, are being addressed in this initiative.

Three Dimensions of 21st Century Engineers

Generally speaking, the comprehensive training of modern engineers can be viewed as comprising three fundamental areas.

  1. Technical Foundations
    • This aspect consists of the subject matter that cuts across the spectrum of tools needed by engineers in all disciplines. E,g., Mathematics, physical and/or life sciences, probability, AI/Machine Learning.
  2. Disciplinary Knowledge and Skills
    • This aspect is met by disciplinary courses within eight existing majors and programs of study in the CoE. Throughout its history, the UI CoE has achieved excellence in this realm as demonstrated by the many societal contributions made by its graduates.
  3. Essential Qualitative Characteristics – Ethics
    • A carefully crafted and responsive CoE Core should produce engineers with the ability to anticipate and consider the societal impacts of the capabilities of the techniques and technologies emerging from areas such as Artificial Intelligence. Areas to be considered include Ethics, Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, Global Perspectives, and Open-ended Problem Solving. These are critical universal themes for all engineering disciplines.

Components of this Initiative

  • An initial Orientation course to define terms as well as the scope of Ethics as it applies to the professional engineer.
  • The development of  ethics modules that can be inserted at opportune places in other courses at all course levels throughout the academic training career of CoE undergraduate (and perhaps graduate) students. 
    • The modules would be actively maintained by dedicated faculty and instructors.
    • Emphasis would be placed on making these interactive and/or hands-on experiences.
    • For example, groups of 15-20 students could be divided into 3-4 cohorts of 5 students each and charged with playing various roles that frame the ethical conflicts that are inevitable to arise in the career of an engineer. These roles (for example) could include design engineers, technicians, marketing teams, basic research teams, etc.
  • “Studio” course modules in which students produce documentary style videos to capture the essence of the role-playing exercises.

Related Resources

Summaries of Selected Proposals (2019-20 AY)

In response to the above RFA, 8 proposals were submitted by 12 distinct faculty across 5 departments in the College of Engineering. The 4 proposals briefly highlighted below were selected applying criteria based on the RFA, and a strategic vision for a balanced set of courses (levels and subject areas).

  1. "Responsible use of open source software and internet accessible code", Profs. Guadalupe Canahuate and Tyler Bell. Software programming, similar to writing, is a creative act. This proposal addresses the complex intellectual property rights of software developers and the software products they produce. Specifically, this proposal aims to educate engineering students about best practices for the ethical use of open-source software (OSS) and other freely available code. In the proposed module, students will learn about various open-source license terms, restrictions, and obligations and will be exposed to the ethical implications of reusing code or software libraries available online. Through in-class exercises, students will implement what they’ve learned within a variety of situations designed to elicit potential ethical dilemmas around the use of OSS. Ultimately, this module’s goal is to educate and establish a framework around the ethical consumption and production of software and creative work, in general.
  2. “Ethical and Moral Challenges for Engineers And AI: A Web-Based Serious Game for Engineering Decision Making”, Prof. Ibrahim Demir. This project addresses ethical and moral challenges in engineering decision-making process using a web-based serious gaming platform. The experimental platform will be designed to explore ethical dilemmas faced by engineers in decision making. Students will be presented many real-world scenarios where they need to choose one of the two potential engineering solutions and alternatives where the options will positively and negatively affect different communities. The students will decide how to divide up the risk and benefits associated with these decisions between different stakeholders. While the experiment can be used to help students think about the engineering decision-making process and ethical and moral challenges around these decisions, it can be used to create a guideline for automated systems and Artificial Intelligence that will be involved in engineering decision making in the future.
  3. "Societal Impacts of Engineering Design", Profs. Jennifer Fiegel, Allen Bradley, and Beth Rundlett. In this project, we will develop an interactive, team-based ethics module focused on engineering design and societal interfaces for first-year undergraduate engineering students in Introduction to Engineering Problem Solving (IEPS). Students will develop their own ethical code, be introduced to the NSPE and discipline-specific ethical codes, and practice and discuss the process of ethical decision-making via a choose-your-own adventure game in a fun, collaborative environment.
  4. "Ethical Issues in Machine Learning", Profs. Raghu Mudumbai and Weiyu Xu. Integrating machine learning systems into the daily operations of human societies has introduced new ethical challenges.  In this project, the PIs propose to create an extensible course module that provides a systematic and rigorous basis for reasoning about the ethical impacts of algorithmic decision-making in general, but focusing on (a) privacy and (b) fairness in deep learning classifiers.  Students will learn the module contents, and experiment with potential solutions, through course lectures, in-class examples, and class projects.