Educational methods

Teaching ethics to engineers starts with concrete examples and cases. Ibo van de Poel

Educational methods for teaching ethics to engineering students

Some of our educational methods include but are not limited to: using problem-based learning, employing the ethical cycle, encouraging students to shift perspectives, and ethics across the curriculum.

Read more about these methods in the links below

Problem-based learning

 Our approach emphasizes the problem-based learning based on case studies and exercises which are taken from the daily practice of engineering work, as up to date as possible. As already pointed out by other researchers (see for example Mills & Treagust, 2003), problem-based learning resembles the design process which is already familiar to engineering students.

Engineering students are already used to the problem-solving way of thinking as it involves multiple phases, iterative thinking and produces an open-ended solution (Mills & Treagust, 2003). When presenting engineering students with moral problems, we also give them the tool-set needed to 'solve' them - namely the ethical theories - and the methodology (the ethical cycle for example), while also taking care to clarify that there is not one single correct solution. This approach demands from students creativity and makes them own their answers to the problems in a way that also empowers them and encourages debates, group work, and student initiative. 

Ethics across the curriculum

 We work in close collaboration with our colleagues from the engineering departments so that they integrate moments of ethical reflection all throughout their curricula, such that students do not perceive ethical problems as a separate domain or way of thinking. We aim to instill certain skills and values in our students such that ethical reflection becomes a way of life, habitual to the everyday practice. 

Role plays

In a role-playing game, students are divided into groups and have to play a scenario involving ethical decision making. Some play the engineers, some the managers, others play other stake holders. There is also a group of observers or judges made up also of students who evaluates their decisions at the end.

Role-playing is useful for student exercises because it mimics 'real-life situations' and it 'allows students to:

(1) achieve insights into themselves;

(2) clarify their values; and

(3) direct or change their behavior'

There are three major objectives of role-playing:

  • "teaching communication skills;

  • teaching (micro-)ethics; [individualistic level]

  • broadening students’ perspectives (this includes macro-ethics - [institutional level])."


    Source: Doorn, N. & Kroesen, J.O. Sci Eng Ethics (2013) 19: 1513.



Working in teams

Because engineering work is heavily based on collaboration and teams, we encourage students to work in teams also in their ethics education. We ask students to write their essays in groups, we typically organise the instruction sessions in such ways that students work in groups and take turns leading the sessions. Students are forced to confront permanently their colleague's moral intuitions and argue for their solutions to a moral problem in front of others. This collaborative set-up reminds the students that they are public thinkers and that they need to be able to argue in public for their moral reasoning.

We also work in teaching teams wherever possible. We collaborate with colleagues from engineering departments to ensure the up-to-date of our moral cases, and to disseminate ethics across the curriculum.

The ethical cycle

The ethical cycle is 'a structured and disciplined method of addressing moral problems, which helps to guide a sound analysis of these problems. 

The educational aim was 'to develop a model that is a helpful tool in structuring and improving moral decisions, especially in the context of teaching practical ethics. With improving moral decision-making, we aim at a situation in which the decision-maker makes at least a systematic and thorough analysis of the moral problem and is able to justify his final decisions in moral terms'

Rationale: 'Arriving at a moral judgment is not a straightforward or linear process in which ethical theories are simply applied to cases. Instead it is a process in which the formulation of the moral problem, the formulation of possible “solutions”, and the ethical judging of these solutions go hand in hand'

Source: Poel, Ibo & Royakkers, L. (2007). The Ethical Cycle. Journal of Business Ethics. 71. 1-13. 10.1007/s10551-006-9121-6


Gamification/ Serious games

 This approach is still in development. Here is a link to a serious game developed by the students of the Water ethics course [news item in Dutch]