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Embodied ethics education for engineers

Thursday, 25 January 2024
Memorable and lasting ethics education for engineers

Memorable and lasting ethics education for engineers

Written by: Merel Engelsman

Solutions created by engineers change the shared environment we all live in. Often for the better, but also with the potential to negatively impact individuals, countries, and even entire cultures. The 4TU.CEE COMET education innovation and research project develops, implements, and tests innovative learning activities to stimulate high quality engineering ethics education.

Plastics, hydro-electric dams, laser pointers, aerosols, self-driving cars; all of these and many more technological solutions come with ethical repercussions. “That is why the Dutch technical universities are committed to having their engineers develop an ethical sensitivity to the moral features or their work,” says Lavinia Marin, assistant professor in the Ethics and Philosophy of Technology Section at TU Delft and a main educator and researcher on the COMET project. “And for them to be able to anticipate what kind of ethical dilemmas their solutions may create when they make it into society.”

Sprinkle and deep dive

Engineering ethics has been embedded at TU Delft for several decades. Currently, small moments of ethics education are sprinkled throughout the bachelor curriculum. Then, at the master’s level, students receive dedicated ethics courses, such as the ‘ethics of robots’. “I think this is an effective approach as I believe students need some kind of maturity to tackle ethical issues,” Marin says. “But we do want them to start thinking about it throughout the bachelors. The additional benefit is that students see ethics being taught by people who also teach engineering.”

Embodied ethics education is about having students work with their bodies and interact with each other while thinking about an ethical problem


The aim of the COMET project – Comprehensive Ethics Teaching for Engineering and Design students – is to further strengthen ethics education at TU Delft by identifying and proposing best practices. Funded by the Centre for Engineering Education of the 4TU federation, it involves a dedicated team that, over the course of several years, investigates both fundamental and practical aspects of engineering ethics education. “On the one hand, we will for example research the kinds of ethical competencies we are trying to teach,” says Janna van Grunsven, assistant professor in the same section and also a main researcher within COMET. “On the pragmatic side, we want to design, implement, and test new exercises that are genuinely effective.”

Embodied ethics education

An extensive literature review and an initial hands-on ethics exercise have steered the COMET team towards the potential of embodied ethics education. Marin: “Rather than having the students write an essay or have a debate, the idea is to have them work with their bodies and interact with each other while thinking about an ethical problem.”

The role of embodied gesture and interaction has been well researched in the context of, for example, physics education. “Surprisingly, it isn’t used much in the context of ethics education,” van Grunsven says. “We saw the potential of this kind of education as it asks the students to draw on their strengths, which is engineering, tinkering, modifying things.”

In the current stage of the COMET project, the team is developing four embodied ethics exercises that tap into the engineering mindset while also encouraging the students to gain a critical attitude towards it. They will be incorporated in master’s level elective ethics courses. One of these exercises, developed by Aafke Fraaije, is an art journey across the TU Delft campus. It involves students looking for works of art (loosely) related to climate change, fossil fuels, the energy transition, and then have them reflect on what it tells them from an ethical perspective. Marin: “When you see an art piece, it makes you think differently than when reading. It enhances your sensitivity.” Her own exercise will involve science fiction writing. “I have noticed that students really let their imagination run wild as there are no constraints.”

 We want ethics education to become an experience that engineers fondly remember and embrace

A memorable experience

Both Marin and van Grunsven emphasise that it certainly is not the goal of the COMET project to prescribe how ethics must be taught at TU Delft, and other 4TU universities, going forward. “Engineering lecturers and instructors are cool and inspiring teachers who have the expertise and should have freedom in how they teach engineering ethics and philosophy of technology,” van Grunsven says. “And we already collaborate with many of them in developing fitting exercises for their courses. What COMET does is to add some theoretical grounding and a little nudge towards what we believe to be even more effective ethics education.”

The desired outcome of the third stage of COMET therefore is to develop the four exercises in such a way that other educators can easily adapt them to their specific course and context. “Testing and evaluating these exercises in various courses and educational settings will also help us build an overarching theory,” Marin says. The team will furthermore develop a teach-the-teacher workshop for 4TU engineering educators to help them feel more confident in teaching ethics.

But most of all, the goal of COMET is for engineering ethics education to have a lasting effect. “What I as a university teacher aim for is for ethics class not to be something you learn, but something you remember and embrace,” Marin says. “It has to become an experience, something you think fondly of, and that you remember when you are working in a corporation or some other environment.”


=== The TU Delft COMET teams sponsored by 4TU.CEE ===

COMET 1.0 (2019 – 2021):   Janna van Grunsven, Taylor Stone, and Lavinia Marin

COMET 2.0 (2021 – 2022):   Janna van Grunsven, Lavinia Marin, Trijsje Franssen, Andrea Gammon

COMET 3.0 (2023 – 2025):   Aafke Fraaije, Andrea Gammon, Steffen Steinert, Martin Sand, Lavinia Marin, Janna van Grunsven