Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric, Theory and Culture (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Humanities


Ann Brady


Two concerns are prominent in engineering ethics pedagogy and, together, pose a conundrum for ethics educators: 21st century technologies raise daunting ethical questions that require a strong engagement with and understanding of ethics by engineers; at the same time, however, engineering students don’t care much about studying ethics. Ethics instruction, however, seems nonresponsive to these issues. It continues to rely on Western ethical theories using case studies to analyze professional engineering conduct. And, although instructors want better student learning outcomes, assessment continues to use quantitative measures of ethical knowledge and ethical reasoning skills which disregard students’ emotional engagement with ethics and underestimates ABET’s Engineering Criterion 3(f) which requires that engineering students have an understanding of professional and ethical responsibilities. In the end, dissatisfaction with instruction and student learning outcomes persists.

Given the epistemological foundations of engineering – that engineering is applied science using knowledge that is universal, objective, certain, and discoverable through reason – it is unsurprising that engineering ethics is taught the same way science is taught using a linear, positivistic, problem-solving approach that assumes reason will yield correct and usually quantitatively determined answers to ethical questions. In this dissertation, I argue that, contrary to the dominant thinking passed on to generations of students that engineering is applied science and, as such, largely ethically neutral beyond safe an d efficient design, the practice of engineering actually arises from a contingency model of knowledge and is, correspondingly, imbued with both uncertainty and ethics. I contend that the way we teach engineering ethics must change if we expect different learning outcomes from undergraduate engineering students.

In this research, I introduce an engineering ethics pedagogy informed by phenomenology, the study of human meaning from the standpoint of experience. Students are asked to research the phenomenological question, “what is it to be an ethical engineer?” and employ principles of hermeneutic phenomenology to interpret and understand that experience. Quantitative measures test changes in students’ ethical sensitivity and ethical reasoning skills, and qualitative methods informed by philosophical hermeneutics are used to assess changes in students’ emotional engagement with ethics and their understanding of professional and ethical responsibilities.

I draw two principal conclusions from my work on this project. First, a one-credit ethics course using a phenomenology-informed engineering ethics pedagogy can contribute to undergraduate engineering students’ improved ethical sensitivity, ethical reasoning skills, emotional engagement with the study of ethics, and understanding of professional and ethical responsibility. Second, qualitative assessment revealed that we educators of engineering ethics are not attuned to what is important to our undergraduate engineering students. While we are intent on imparting ethical knowledge, our students worry about how they will fit into the world of engineering as ethically competent professionals when they move from undergraduate student to practicing engineer. This is a gap we must fill if we expect our students to graduate with an understanding of their professional and ethical responsibilities. A phenomenological approach to engineering ethics education – where students are given the opportunity to investigate, encounter, and understand the real, lived experience of what it is to be an ethical engineer – can help fill this gap.