Cultivating engineering ethics and critical thinking: a systematicand cross-cultural education approach using problem-based learning –

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European Journal of Engineering Education
Vol. 36, No. 4, August 2011, 377–390
Cultivating engineering ethics and critical thinking: a systematic
and cross-cultural education approach using problem-based
Pei-Fen Chang
and Dau-Chung Wang
Graduate Institute of Learning and Instruction, National Central University, Chung-Li 320, Taiwan;
Department of Mechanical Engineering, National Yunlin University of Science and Technology,
Douliu 640, Taiwan
Received 9 November 2010; final version received 31 May 2011
In May 2008, the worst earthquake in more than three decades struck southwest China, killing more than
80,000 people. The complexity of this earthquake makes it an ideal case study to clarify the intertwined
issues of ethics in engineering and to help cultivate critical thinking skills. This paper first explores the
need to encourage engineering ethics within a cross-cultural context. Next, it presents a systematic model
for designing an engineering ethics curriculum based on moral development theory and ethic dilemma
analysis. Quantitative and qualitative data from students’ oral and written work were collected and anal-
ysed to determine directions for improvement. The paper also presents results of an assessment of this
interdisciplinary engineering ethics course. This investigation of a disaster is limited strictly to engineering
ethics education; it is not intended to assign blame, but rather to spark debate about ethical issues.
critical thinking; earthquake; engineering ethics; problem-based learning
1. Introduction
Globalisation of engineering education and cross-cultural teaching
The term ‘economic globalisation’ generally refers to the increased openness in the international
economy and exchanges within the movement toward a more liberal world trading system, exem-
plified by the 1946 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization.
Remarkable growth has taken place in the trading of goods and services, capital movements, tech-
nology transfer, international travel and migration and the international flow of information and
ideas. Changes in industrial structuring have resulted in multinational enterprises with increased
power, profit and productivity, which are now the central agents of the new international glob-
alised economy (Intriligator 2001). The process of economic globalisation is ‘super-charging’
the interaction and integration of cultures, politics, business and intellectual elements world-
wide. Critics have both praised and disparaged economic globalisation and reflections argue
*Corresponding author. Email:
ISSN 0304-3797 print
ISSN 1469-5898 online
© 2011 SEFI
DOI: 10.1080
P.-F. Chang and D.-C. Wang
that the ability to harness the good and avoid the bad lies in the cultivation of one’s knowledge
through education (see e.g. Robertson 1992, Ali 2000, Friedman 2000, Newman
et al
. 2005, Wood
The realities of economic globalisation (including greater competition, relentless pressures to
innovate, new worldwide markets and production options, growing concerns over cultural and
environmental degradation) could lead to a perception that ‘knowledge societies”, those that
constantly develop new ideas, technologies, methods, products and services, are crucial for future
global prosperity. Today, possessing knowledge and being able to use it in a worldwide arena are
critical to personal and societal advancement, gaining economic advantages and development.
Similarly, having a skilled and globally focused workforce may be the most important ingredient
to any organisation’s worldwide competitiveness. The role of higher education in such nurturing
is increasingly evident, as universities and colleges are considered by many to be the primary
institutions to cultivate such highly trained individuals (see e.g. Florida 2002, Friedman 2005,
Wood 2006).
Today’s engineers and scientists face new challenges, including trying to understand people with
differing cultural values and being able to interact with them effectively. Economic globalisation
has made it necessary to augment traditional engineering and science education with new training
about the importance of cross-cultural knowledge (Lohman
et al
. 2006, Borri
et al
. 2007). If
higher education institutions do not provide engineering courses on general laws and cultural
systems, their graduates may be unprepared to work within the global market (Yates 2007).
A conceptual ethics model for systematic cultivation of engineering ethics
The field of ethics is considerably broader than a simple analysis of right and wrong. It focuses
on ‘right conduct’ and the ‘good life’, the life worth living or life that is personally satisfying
(Reddy 2008). This holds especially true in engineering ethics, where furthering the good life
is the objective of engineering education. To address the homogeneous nature of engineering
education, this study develops a theory for moral development and proposes a systematic approach
to cultivate engineering ethics, which is often lacking in current engineering ethics curricula. This
approach is based on Eckensberger’s (2003) action theory and four levels of moral orientation,
which can also help promote cross-cultural understanding. Table 1 presents a common action
theory framework that integrates two research traditions by incorporating ‘levels of action’ into
‘levels of moral judgement’. Actions are classified in terms of agent maturity according to four
levels, corresponding to four levels of moral development or judgement. The first level involves
inexperience with regard to (moral) interpersonal heteronomous
autonomous levels and the last
involves maturity with regard to (moral) transpersonal heteronomous
autonomous levels. Thus,
the four levels of moral development, orientation or judgement refer to four hierarchical levels of
moral development. Five phenomena are mentioned in Table 1: action concepts; appreciation of
rules; moral judgement; responsibility; risk. It is also crucial to remember that Kohlberg’s theory
of moral development (Kohlberg and Candee 1984) was deeply rooted in Eckensberger’s model
and Western ethics theories (Eckensberger 2003).
As with all learning, the cultivation of ethics must proceed in steps — in this case, from prim-
itive to sophisticated moral judgement. Eckensberger’s four levels of moral orientation provide
an excellent framework for systematic and progressive cultivation of engineering ethics. The
objective is to ensure competence in ethical decision making. Individuals with differing moral
orientations will think and behave differently when they encounter an ethical dilemma. Table 1
shows how an individual at the level 1 moral orientation (interpersonal heteronomous) will del-
egate responsibility to authority so as to protect his
her individual interests when considerations
are restricted to issues of responsibility. At the level 2 stage (interpersonal autonomous), the

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