Comparison of “Typical” vs. Open Ended Ethics Case Studies in First-Year Engineering

  • Ken Reid
Keywords: ethics, case studies, first year, engineering


Ethics is among the professional skills embedded in the first year engineering curriculum in many institutions. The general format of the study of ethics is similar to many other institutions: student teams review case studies and develop written and oral presentations on the ethical issues encountered. This report investigates whether the use of a large, open-ended case study with multiple questions investigated by multiple groups would lead to any difference(s) in perception of ethical issues when compared to a more typical scenario involving a short single-issue case study. Students were divided into groups; some groups were assigned to specific, well-established ethical case studies. Other groups were assigned to a larger case study with available supplemental material and tasked to present on ethical issues from one of multiple perspectives. Pre- and post-surveys were conducted. Significant differences were found for each item from the pre- to the post-survey, however, no significant differences between the case study formats were found. Limitations to this study include: the post-survey assessed perceptions within days of completion of the assignment (rather than long term appreciation of the examples), modifications of the format of the case studies and that the population is limited to one cohort. While no significant differences were found on the effectiveness of the more complex case study, more in-class discussion was observed and debate was more involved than those for the typical case studies. The inclusion of a rich, expanded case study was found to be at least as effective as typical case studies and can certainly lead to a greater depth of discussion on ethical issues, and is therefore quite useful in the classroom.