ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000 and Engineering Ethics: Where Do We Go From Here?
The Engineering Criteria 2000 of the Accreditation Board
for Engineering and Technology (ABET) promises to
significantly alter the landscape of engineering education in
the United States. One potential outcome of Criteria 2000 is
increased attention in the curriculum to the ethical
responsibilities of engineers. In this paper, I discuss the
portions of Criteria 2000 with relevance to engineering
ethics education, some encouraging and discouraging
developments in the field of engineering ethics, and the work
that remains in order to achieve meaningful ethics education
for all engineering students, with particular emphasis on
competing curriculum models.
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ABET 2000 and Engineering Ethics
The Engineering Criteria 2000 were first published in
draft form in 1995 and formally adopted by ABET in 1997.
Beginning in fall 2001 all engineering programs are to be
accredited using Criteria 2000. Currently, there is a three
year phased implementation period during which schools can
opt for accreditation under Criteria 2000 or the previous
Criteria 2000 represents a major shift in ABET philosophy
to a process based upon locally-designed educational
objectives, within the general framework prescribed by
Criteria 2000, and specific educational outcomes, both of
which are to be assessed on a continuous basis.
The focal point of attention on Criteria 2000 has been
Criterion 3, which specifies program outcomes and assessment
Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates
- an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science,
- an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well
as to analyze and interpret data
- an ability to design a system, component, or process to
meet desired needs
- an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams
- an ability to identify, formulate, and solve
- an understanding of professional and ethical
- an ability to communicate effectively
- the broad education necessary to understand the impact
of engineering solutions in a global and societal
- a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage
in life-long learning
- a knowledge of contemporary issues
- an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern
engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.
The outcome most obviously associated with engineering
ethics is (6), an understanding of professional and ethical
responsibility. As I will shortly argue, however, outcome (6)
is closely linked to outcome (8), the broad education
necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions
in a global and societal context. It should be noted that
outcomes (7) and (10) also address skills and issues that
fall within the realm of humanities and social sciences
Criterion 4, though the focus of less attention than
Criterion 3, is also relevant in the context of engineering
ethics education. This criterion provides for "a major design
experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in
earlier coursework and incorporating engineering standards
and realistic constraints that include most of the following
considerations: economic; environmental; sustainability;
manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and
political." Criterion 4 also specifies that the professional
component must include "a general education component that
complements the technical content of the curriculum and is
consistent with the program and institution objectives."
Since this replaces the previous requirement for one-half
year of coursework in the humanities and social sciences, it
has been regarded by some as a threat to the humanities and
social sciences component of the engineering curriculum.
Others, as will be noted later, have regarded this change as
an opportunity for innovation on the part of those who teach
humanities and social sciences, including ethics, to
Addressing the engineering ethics requirement of Criteria
2000 through new course offerings would be a major challenge
for engineering schools. Based on a survey of undergraduate
catalogues of ABET accredited institutions, Stephan 2 determined that in nearly
70% of the institutions there is no ethics-related course
requirement for all students. When the results are normalized
to account for number of graduates per institution, nearly
80% of engineering graduates attend schools that have no
ethics-related course requirement for all students. While 16%
of institutions and 7% of graduates do have one or more
courses with ethics-related content, these courses are
usually not courses in engineering ethics, but rather courses
in philosophy, religion, etc.
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The Encouraging News
The ABET Criteria 2000, with its mandate for increased
attention to professional and ethical responsibility in the
engineering curriculum, comes during a period of
unprecedented growth in the academic field of engineering
ethics, as evidenced by the attainment of a "critical mass"
of individuals focused on the topic, a number of successful
ethics-related conferences and conference-sessions, a wealth
of teaching resources, and several notable success
In the academy, a growing number of philosophers,
engineers and others with traditional backgrounds such as
history or multidisciplinary backgrounds (e.g., the author)
have focused their research and teaching on engineering
ethics. Often, philosophers have teamed with engineers,
resulting in a synergistic approach that bridges applied
ethics and engineering practice. Engineering practitioners
have maintained an interest in engineering ethics, usually
working through the professional engineering societies. Due
to the opportunities for linkages they provide between
academics and practicing engineers, the role of the
professional societies should not be understated. Recently,
there has also been an upswing in corporate ethics activities
as many corporations have shifted their ethics programs from
a compliance orientation to a corporate values
In the past two years alone, groups such as the
Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, an
organization of ethicists and practitioners, the Liberal
Education Division of the American Society for Engineering
Education, the Engineering Foundation and the Online Ethics
Center for Engineering and Science have sponsored successful
conferences or conference sessions focused on engineering
ethics and related topics. Such events are indicative of a
small but active community of scholars and teachers in
Resources for engineering ethics research and education
have continued to grow. Established textbooks have come out
in new editions and new textbooks and scholarly books
relating to engineering ethics are periodically published.
Established journals published by the professional
engineering societies (e.g., IEEE Technology and
Society Magazine and ASCE's Journal of
Professional Issues in Engineering Education and
Practice) have been complemented by the debut of
Science and Engineering Ethics, the first
scholarly journal with a principal focus on ethics in
engineering. Of equal significance has been the explosive
growth of online resources 3, led by the Online Ethics Center for Engineering
and Science at Case Western Reserve University and other
university-based resources such as those maintained at Texas
A & M University and the University of Virginia. Many of
these resources have included a strong focus on the
development and utilization of the case study method of
instruction, including interactive cases in some of the
online applications. Significant support for these
developments and others has been provided by the National
Science Foundation, private foundations, and engineering
With respect to curricular developments, despite the
overall negative picture reflected in Stephan's survey, a
number of notable success stories have occurred, including: a
required course in engineering ethics at Texas A & M
University, an across-the-curriculum initiative at the
University of Michigan's engineering college, and numerous
elective courses in engineering ethics. In some cases a
course in engineering ethics is an option under a broader
general education requirement, such as the Science,
Technology and Society requirement at North Carolina State
University. Lynch reports 4 that nine of the top ten engineering schools have
some ethics component in their curriculum.
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The Discouraging News
In contrast to the enthusiasm and effort shown by the
engineering ethics community there are a number of
discouraging signs that suggest putting real teeth in the
Criteria 2000 ethics requirement will be an uphill struggle.
These barriers include indifference and cynicism towards
ethics initiatives on the part of some engineering
practitioners and educators, inertia of the discipline-based
professional societies with respect to ethical issues in
engineering, a lack of engineering faculty commitment to
including ethics material in their courses, and a lack of
student motivation for learning such material.
Indifferent and cynical attitudes are illustrated by the
experience I had with a column I wrote on engineering ethics
education for the December 1997 issue of The
Institute, the IEEE news supplement with a circulation
of over 300,000. The column elicited responses from only one
individual and those were aimed at a single paragraph in
which I wrote 5:
In addition to traditional concerns, such as protection of
the public health, safety and welfare, the rapid change
occurring in the engineering workplace environment is
challenging engineering educators to introduce students to
the ethical implications of such issues as sustainable
development, globalization, the rapid growth of information
technology, and team-oriented engineering practice. It is
thus becoming incumbent upon all engineering educators to
share responsibility for teaching their students about the
societal and ethical aspects of engineering.
One engineer sent me a polite request for more information
while at the same time sending the following comment to the
chair of the IEEE Ethics Committee:
Was the Herkert article in the December issue intended to
say that engineers and engineering "educators" should support
some kind of socialist malarkey on "sustainable development"
and one-world government type "globalization"? Is academia so
He did not reply to my explanation that "globalization" is
a common term used within IEEE circles to acknowledge the
international character of the organization, the importance
of the emerging global marketplace, etc. and that the concept
of sustainable development has been endorsed by such
establishment groups as the World Engineering Partnership for
Sustainable development and the World Business Council for
In retrospect, it's not that surprising that my column
generated such little interest within IEEE and that the
interest that was generated was so cynical. IEEE, like the
other discipline-based professional societies, has in recent
years for the most part only been giving lip service to the
importance of engineering ethics. IEEE suspended its "ethics
hotline," designed to provide information to engineers with
ethical concerns, after less than a year of operation. An
effort to incorporate the concept of environmental protection
in the ASME Code of Ethics eventually succeeded, but not
before many months of stonewalling on the part of some
members. ASCE's new code while incorporating language that
seems supportive of the concept of sustainable development
appears to be based on a rather limited notion of the term 6 . Perhaps more to
the point, the roughly two dozen advanced level program
criteria developed by the professional societies for use with
ABET Criteria 2000 fail to mention ethics, with the lone
exception of the criteria for Construction Engineering (only
two others mention safety).
Even more disturbing is the apparent lack of commitment by
many engineering faculty to the importance of incorporating
engineering ethics material within the engineering
curriculum. These attitudes are encapsulated by a response by
two computer scientists to an article describing a NSF-funded
project to infuse ethics and social impacts of computing
material in the computer science curriculum. Though the
following remarks deal with computer science rather than
engineering, they are, I believe, indicative of the attitudes
of many engineering educators 7:
The most glaring problem with the proposed, "Implementing
a Tenth Strand in the CS Curriculum"... is that the proposed
subject matter is not computer science. The content of the
"strand" has no algorithms, no data structures, no
mathematical analysis, no computer architecture, neither
software development nor hardware design, no computer science
theory. In short, the content is devoid of every standard
element present in computer science research and
A course in social and ethical impact of computing may be
desirable, but let us ask the philosophy, sociology, and
public policy departments to teach such courses. Ethics
should be taught by faculty with experience, research
interests, and doctoral degrees in ethics, not by computer
science professors pretending to be ethicists....
Ethical and social concerns may be important, but as
debating the morality of nuclear weapons is not doing
physics, discussing the social and ethical impact of
computing is not doing computer science.
In the first and last paragraph cited above the authors
make clear their position that ethics and social implications
of computing are at best marginal to the discipline of
The argument in the second paragraph that teaching such
material should be left to humanists and social scientists
would perhaps be reasonable were it not coupled with the
implicit thrust of the rest of the statement that such
material is not important enough to be covered in required
courses. Elective courses taught by humanists and social
scientists would appear to be the model for ethics and social
context of computing advocated by these critics.
More telling is the lack of interest in engineering ethics
and the social implications of engineering reflected in the
papers presented at the Frontiers in Education (FIE)
Conference, the premiere conference on educational methods in
engineering (sponsored by the ASEE-Educational Research and
Methods Division, the IEEE Education Society, and the IEEE
Computer Society), and published in ASEE's Journal of
Engineering Education. As indicated in Table 1, since
1996 roughly one percent of the sessions and two percent of
the papers presented at FIE have been on engineering ethics
or ethics-related topics with about one-third of the papers
being presented by the "usual suspects," that is, individuals
who the author recognizes as members of the engineering
ethics community. Criteria 2000 has had little impact on the
presentations at FIE in the area of engineering ethics; the
number of sessions and papers have steadily decreased over
the three-year period. The 1999 Call for Papers, like the
1998 Call, did not suggest engineering ethics as a topic of
Table 1. Ethics-Related Sessions and Papers Presented at the Frontiers in Education Conference
*Does not include plenaries, featured lectures, interactive forums, panels without paper abstracts, poster sessions, workshops, etc.
As Table 2 indicates, engineering ethics papers have appeared more frequently in the Journal of Engineering Education over a comparable time period, averaging about eight percent of articles published, though more than half of these have been written by usual suspects. And like the FIE totals, ethics-related papers decreased in relative number during the period 1996-1998.
Table 2. Ethics-Related Papers in the Journal of Engineering Education
|1999 (to date)
This lack of faculty interest in engineering ethics education is mirrored by a lack of student motivation to learn material in this area. Elective courses in engineering ethics, even when available, are not always a popular choice. At North Carolina State University, for example, we enroll from 15-30 students as compared to approximately 900 engineering degrees awarded each year. A survey of students at Georgia Tech indicated that undergraduates place much less importance on the Criteria 2000 outcomes dealing with "engineering and society" (which includes professional and ethical responsibility and global/societal context) than they do the other outcomes
In a study of undergraduates, graduates and practitioners taking courses at Lamar University, Koehn
found that when evaluating the eleven outcomes of Criterion 2 on the basis of "high level of educational attributes," undergraduates ranked the outcome calling for an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility in a tie for eighth place, compared to a fifth place tie for graduate students and a third place tie for practitioners. Unlike the Georgia Tech study, however, Koehn found undergraduates to rank the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context rather high (tied for fourth place), compared to a seventh place tie for graduate students and ninth place for practitioners.
Koehn's finding suggest that while undergraduate students may lack motivation to study ethics, they do have an interest in the social aspects of engineering that could be used to leverage an interest in ethics. In a comparative study of freshmen engineering and non-engineering students, Atman and Nair
found that engineering students also possess the conceptual frameworks and knowledge of societal concepts to enable them to address the social context of engineering:
...these data suggest that calls for the inclusion of "an appreciation of the economic, industrial and international environment in which engineering is practiced..." within the engineering curriculum would find a receptive student audience whose existing conceptual frameworks are well suited to learn more about these issues.
These findings are consistent with my own observations based upon twelve years experience in teaching Science, Technology and Society (STS) courses to a mixed audience of engineering and non-engineering students. As will be noted in the next section, combining ethics instruction with material dealing with the social context of engineering can be an effective curricular model for responding to Criteria 2000.
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The Work That Remains
If the vision for engineering ethics education that is articulated in Criteria 2000 is to become a reality, the discouraging trends noted in the previous section will have to be reversed. Ultimately, this will require a greater buy-in to the importance of engineering ethics on the part of engineering practitioners, engineering educators and engineering students. As a first step in this direction, the members of the engineering ethics community should work at providing answers to three key questions:
- What is the appropriate content for engineering ethics education and what teaching methods are preferable?
- Are some curriculum models for engineering ethics education better than others?
- Which outcome assessment methods are suitable for engineering ethics?
In my view, the most important of these questions in the second, for the curriculum model sets the framework in which the content, teaching methods, and outcome assessment methods take hold. In closing, then, I will focus my remarks on the second question. In particular, I will comment on four models that are being attempted: a required course in engineering ethics for all engineering students; an across-the-curriculum model for engineering ethics; integration of engineering ethics instruction with material that focuses on the social context of engineering; and an integrated humanities and social sciences program that seeks to address all of the non-technical outcomes specified in ABET 2000 Criterion 3.
Required Course in Engineering Ethics
This model, though successful at Texas A & M University and a few smaller institutions is unlikely to gain widespread favor. This is due to the high cost of such endeavors in terms of faculty time and an already tightly structured engineering curriculum. In addition, unless supplemented by further instruction in engineering ethics in mainstream engineering courses, this method can leave students with the impression that ethics is a sidebar rather than integral part of their engineering studies.
This approach seeks to address the limitations of the required course model by spreading engineering ethics instruction throughout the engineering curriculum, e.g., in introduction to engineering courses, sophomore engineering science courses, junior discipline-based courses, and senior design experiences. The key to the success of this model is overcoming engineering faculty resistance to the importance of ethics instruction, and demonstrating to them, thorough faculty development initiatives, how ethics material can be incorporated in their classes. The engineering curriculum initiative at the University of Michigan is one such effort. Their program is currently driven by the philosophy that the best way to develop and maintain an across-the-curriculum program is to make subtle changes in the way engineering is taught so that such topics as ethics and safety are seen as common attributes of good engineering practice
Integrating Engineering Ethics and Science, Technology and Society
As noted earlier, there are strong reasons to believe that engineering students have both the motivation and ability to engage material that deals with the social context of engineering. This suggests that a fruitful curriculum model would aim at simultaneously addressing Criteria 2000 outcome (6), an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility, and outcome (8), the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context. Such a linkage would also address a criticism of traditional engineering ethics instruction that it has focused on microethical problems—dilemmas confronting individual engineers—to the neglect of macroethical issues confronting the engineer profession as a whole
Such an integrated curriculum model for computer science was developed in Project ImpactCS, funded by the National Science Foundation
The fundamental knowledge units in the area of ethical and social impacts of computing (ES) recommended by the study are listed in Figure 1. The authors of the study advocate an across-the-curriculum approach supplemented by a required course. A successful example of this model in an engineering context is the Program on Technology, Culture and Communication (TCC) at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science. All engineering students take a four course core from this program including .5 to 1.5 semesters worth of engineering ethics content, most of which is included in a two course senior sequence, "Western Technology and Culture," and "The Engineer in Society"
Integration with the overall engineering curriculum is achieved through a required senior thesis on the social impacts of a technical project that is advised by a member of the TCC faculty.
ES1: Responsibility of the Computer Professional for Computer Science
- ES1.1: History of the development and impact of computer technology
- ES1.2: Why be ethical?
- ES1.3: Major ethical models
- ES1.4: Definition of computing as a profession
- ES1.5: Codes of ethics and professional responsibility for computer professionals
ES2: Basic Elements of Ethical Analysis for Computer Science
- ES2.1: Ethical claims can and should be discussed rationally.
- ES2.2: Ethical choices cannot be avoided.
- ES2.3: Easy ethical approaches are questionable.
ES3: Basic Skills of Ethical Analysis for Computer Science
- ES3.1: Arguing from example, analogy, and counter-example
- ES3.2: Identifying stakeholders in concrete situations
- ES3.3: Identifying ethical issues in concrete situations
- ES3.4: Applying ethical codes to concrete situations
- ES3.5: Identifying and evaluating alternative courses of action
ES4: Basic Elements of Social Analysis for Computer Science
- ES4.1: Social context influences the development and use of technology.
- ES4.2: Power relations are central in all social interactions.
- ES4.3: Technology embodies the values of the developers.
- ES4.4: Populations are always diverse.
- ES4.5: Empirical data are crucial to design and development processes.
ES5: Basic Skills of Social Analysis for Computer Science
- ES5.1: Identifying and interpreting the social context of a particular implementation
- ES5.2: Identifying assumptions and values embedded in a particular system
- ES5.3: Using empirical data to evaluate a particular implementation of a technology
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Figure 1: Five Fundamental ES Knowledge Units
Integrating the Liberal Arts Into the Engineering Curriculum
Taking the Engineering Ethics/STS model one step further, a group of universities led by Illinois Institute of Technology is conducting a three-year project focused on development of traditional courses and across-the-curriculum initiatives that will comprise an integrated response to the humanities-oriented outcomes of Criteria 2000, in such areas as engineering ethics, business-humanities interaction, social and environmental context, and history of the engineering profession.
Due to the diversity in engineering programs, it is likely that all of these models, and perhaps others, will be brought to bear in implementing a response to Criteria 2000. However, the third model discussed, integrating engineering ethics and STS, is likely to be most flexible. Not only is this model amenable to combination with each of the other three, in simultaneously addressing two required outcomes of Criteria 2000 it increases the likelihood that significant room for this material will be made in the crowded engineering curriculum. Most importantly, a model that places individual ethical responsibility within the broader framework of the social context of engineering is responsive to the interests and aptitudes of engineering students, while at the same time acknowledging the interdependence of an engineer's ethical responsibilities and the social responsibilities of the engineering profession.
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* Earlier versions presented at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics and the 1998 Annual Conference of the Association for Engineering Education, Liberal Education Division.
Cite this page:
"ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000 and Engineering Ethics: Where Do We Go From Here?"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Sunday, March 29, 2015