Articles  |  ,   |  June 24, 2016

From Caring About Sustainability to Developing Care-Ful Engineers

Article by Diane P. Michelfelder and Sharon A. Jones.
Book chapter in New Developments in Engineering Education for Sustainable Development.


Engineering is commonly thought of as a problem-solving profession (e.g. Allenby in Union College Symposium on Engineering and Liberal Education: Educating the Stewards of a Sustainable Future. Schenectady, New York, 2009; Zhou in Eur J Eng Educ 37(4):343–353, 2012). Still, good problem-solving depends on good problem-framing, which typically means capturing both the technical and social aspects of the problem at hand. It can though be challenging for engineering students to capture both these aspects of a problem. Cech (Sci Tech Human Values 39(1):42–72, 2014) has pointed out that significant challenges still exist within engineering curricula with regard to “reading” technical problems with multiple layers of meaning. What can be done to better this state of affairs? Fortunately, sustainability issues have caught the attention of this generation of college students (Watson et al. in J Prof Issues Pract 235–243, 2013). Building on the student enthusiasm associated with sustainability may be one way to foster student development regarding how to include ethical dimensions as an integral part of engineering framing and problem solving. We suggest that one option to achieve this is by teaching sustainability using an ethics of care framework that offers elements that more easily engage individuals in problem framing. This approach assumes that because engineering students “care” about sustainability as it applies to their disciplines, faculty can use an ethics of care framework to help students operationalize ethics as an integral component of the engineering decision-making process. By building on these initial lessons, students are better prepared to consider the socio-technical dimensions of engineering problems. Our argument draws upon examples from the University of Portland that demonstrate how students have a difficult time translating ethical theories to engineering problems, and also show how the care ethics approach can manifest itself naturally in the engineering curricula. We hope this paper serves to facilitate efforts to intentionally use sustainability issues to improve the teaching and learning of engineering ethics and further cultivate the T-shaped engineer.