Recently, I had a discussion with 30 people about all our frustrations. There were people from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds. “Our colleagues do not understand us,” “people think we are just here to point fingers” and “and because of that we have bad image.” “Students ask me: why do we have to do this?” What connects us is that we teach ethics to engineers.

Luckily for us ethicists at technical universities, ethics as a subject is becoming more and more important in engineering curriculums. At my university, every bachelor student takes a mandatory ethics course. This is obviously amazing. But teaching ethics to STEM-students, especially as a non-STEM teacher, is also frightening. I wrote up a couple of things to remember when teaching ethics to engineers, based on my own experiences and the experiences of my colleagues.


1. It can hurt them when you say bad things about science and engineering.

If you’re an ethicist working with engineers and scientists, it’s likely that you’ve been hurt. You’re not doing science, after all, so your work consists of some floaty opinions. You have no data to support anything you say, just some old books with some speculative arguments. You have probably been likened to a poet, priest or therapist. Maybe your parents were disappointed that you went into philosophy, instead of getting a real degree. This hurts, I know. But this is your battle. It is not the battle of your students.

Your students might be fighting a different battle. It’s easy to think when you work at a university, that everyone loves science and scientists. But in the real world, a person who chooses to go into science can also face backlash. You don’t know how many fervent creationists and anti-vaxxers are sitting at the Christmas dinner tables of your students. You don’t know how many people they have had to defend science, and themselves, too. Keep this in mind when you make critical remarks about science or engineering. Your students might have some pain of their own. See them as allies, not opponents.

2. They might love philosophy even if they hate learning about someone else’s theories.

A lot of people love philosophizing. Particularly intelligent and creative people, like the kinds of people that go into science and engineering. But they would never study philosophy. Because they don’t feel like memorizing what that guy and that other guy said. For philosophers it’s obvious that whatever you says should be situated in the existing literature. But for young non-philosophers, the existing literature doesn’t exist. Their philosophical mind is unshaped and unadulterated. This can be a real strength. Consider making creative philosophizing more central than what whoever said. Whoever should just be there to help.

3. You can also be their role model.

Often we teach compulsory ethics courses. If you do this, it’s easy to think that you will mean nothing to them because you’re not an engineer or scientists. That’s not true. I discovered that students look up to good teachers, regardless of what they teach. Don’t treat the course as something they won’t like but just have to get through. Remember that you are not an alien from another world, coming to preach your strange ways of thinking. You are also educated, you work at a university, you are their ally in the battle against ignorance and bullshitting. You can be their role model, just like the teachers from robotics and flow dynamics.

4. You are teaching them to be good scientists or engineers, not good philosophers.

Your students are not philosophy undergrads. You are not training them to be philosophers. You are educating them with a completely different goal. Ideally, teaching students to think critically about their field could prevent problems like the replication crisis, bias in algorithms, homeless spikes in cities or other crappy or unethical inventions or cultures from arising. This means that you do not need to teach them to “analyze problems to the death” but to recognize and try to solve problems. Engineers generally like solving problems. Why not try to do that in class? Instead of having them do a complex analysis of all the ways in which Snapchat obscures friendships, why not have them propose improvements to Snapchat that make it better? You cannot expect them to be interested in the same stuff as you are. And importantly….

5. Don’t expect them to like writing.

.. as much as you do. And having said that…

6. You don’t have to make them do stuff they hate!

This one was a revelation for me. If your students hate writing essays, you don’t have to make them do that. There are other ways of making them think. How about letting them do something they like to do? Design experiments, design products, design processes or propose changes to existing technologies for instance.

Last year my colleagues and I flipped our ethics course 180 degrees. We brought in companies that struggled with ethical issues and had students think up solutions to those issues. They had to justify their solutions using philosophical argumentation and theories. Some made apps, others made prototypes of improved technologies, some made promotional videos for companies they deemed morally good and others wrote reports. This method made an enormous difference. We saw the motivation of our students and the evaluations of the course at an all-time high last year.

We often like to think that engineers are stuck in their old ways and that we have to get them out of it. But in many ways we are also stuck in our old ways. If you let your engineering students do something they are good at, then you can also learn from them.

By M.A. (Mandi) Astola (Eindhoven University of Technology)

Originally posted here.