Parent Resource19
Essays on Ethics Instruction
Created August 14, 2009
ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000 and Engineering Ethics: Where Do We Go From Here?


This paper discusses 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.



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.

Back To Top

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.

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 1:

Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have

  1. an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering
  2. an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data
  3. an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs
  4. an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams
  5. an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems
  6. an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
  7. an ability to communicate effectively
  8. the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context
  9. a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning
  10. a knowledge of contemporary issues
  11. 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 education.

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 engineering students.

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.

Back To Top

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 stories.

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 orientation.

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 engineering ethics.

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 organizations.

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.

Back To Top

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 corrupted?

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 Sustainable Development.

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 education....

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 computer science.

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 interest.

Table 1. Ethics-Related Sessions and Papers Presented at the Frontiers in Education Conference
Sessions* Papers
Year Total Ethics-Related Total Ethics-Related
Total Usual Suspects
1996 70 2 328 11 13
1997 77 1 336 10 4
1998 78 0 343 3 1
Total 225 3 1007 24 8

*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
Papers Ethics-Related Papers
Year Published Total Usual Suspects
1996 47 6 4
1997 43 3 1
1998 77 3 1
1999 (to date) 20 3 1
Total 187 15 8

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 8.

In a study of undergraduates, graduates and practitioners taking courses at Lamar University, Koehn 9 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 10 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.

Back To Top

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:

  1. What is the appropriate content for engineering ethics education and what teaching methods are preferable?
  2. Are some curriculum models for engineering ethics education better than others?
  3. 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.

Across-the-Curriculum Approach

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 11.

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 12.

Such an integrated curriculum model for computer science was developed in Project ImpactCS, funded by the National Science Foundation 13. 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" 14. 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

  1. ES1.1: History of the development and impact of computer technology
  2. ES1.2: Why be ethical?
  3. ES1.3: Major ethical models
  4. ES1.4: Definition of computing as a profession
  5. ES1.5: Codes of ethics and professional responsibility for computer professionals

ES2: Basic Elements of Ethical Analysis for Computer Science

  1. ES2.1: Ethical claims can and should be discussed rationally.
  2. ES2.2: Ethical choices cannot be avoided.
  3. ES2.3: Easy ethical approaches are questionable.

ES3: Basic Skills of Ethical Analysis for Computer Science

  1. ES3.1: Arguing from example, analogy, and counter-example
  2. ES3.2: Identifying stakeholders in concrete situations
  3. ES3.3: Identifying ethical issues in concrete situations
  4. ES3.4: Applying ethical codes to concrete situations
  5. ES3.5: Identifying and evaluating alternative courses of action

ES4: Basic Elements of Social Analysis for Computer Science

  1. ES4.1: Social context influences the development and use of technology.
  2. ES4.2: Power relations are central in all social interactions.
  3. ES4.3: Technology embodies the values of the developers.
  4. ES4.4: Populations are always diverse.
  5. ES4.5: Empirical data are crucial to design and development processes.

ES5: Basic Skills of Social Analysis for Computer Science

  1. ES5.1: Identifying and interpreting the social context of a particular implementation
  2. ES5.2: Identifying assumptions and values embedded in a particular system
  3. ES5.3: Using empirical data to evaluate a particular implementation of a technology

Back To Top

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.

Back To Top

  • 1 ABET. 1998. Engineering Criteria 2000. Available on the World Wide Web at
  • 2 Stephan, K.D. 1998. "The Invisible Topic: A Survey of Ethics-Related Instruction in U.S. Engineering Programs," unpublished manuscript.
  • 3 Herkert, J.R. 1997. "Making Connections: Engineering Ethics on the World Wide Web," IEEE Transactions on Education 40 (4): CD-ROM Supplement. Republished by the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at
  • 4 Lynch, W.T. 1997. "Teaching Engineering Ethics in the United States," IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 16 (4): 27-36.
  • 5 Herkert, J.R. 1997. "Engineering Ethics Education Finally Reaches a Critical Mass." The Institute (News Supplement of IEEE Spectrum) (December): 2. Available on the World Wide Web at
  • 6 Herkert, J.R. 1998. "Sustainable Development, Engineering and Multinational Corporations: Ethical and Public Policy Implications." Science and Engineering Ethics 4 (3): 333-346
  • 7 Davis, R.L. and Webster, R.W. "Question Proposed CS Knowledge Units" (letter) Communications of the ACM 40 (4).
  • 8 Peters, D.W. 1998. "A Student's View of the ABET 2000 Criteria," Proceedings of the 1998 Frontiers in Education Conference. Available on the World Wide Web at
  • 9 Koehn, E. 1997. "Engineering Perceptions of ABET Accreditation Criteria," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice 123 (2): 66-70.
  • 10 Atman, C.J. and Nair, I. 1996. "Engineering in Context: An Empirical Study of Freshmen Students'g Conceptual Frameworks," Journal of Engineering Education 85 (4): 317-326.
  • 11 Steneck, N.H. "Co-opting Engineering Models and Methods to Teach Engineering Ethics," Proceedings of the 1999 ASEE Annual Conference (in press).
  • 12 Herkert, J.R. 1999. "Ethical Responsibility and Societal Context: The Case for Integrating Engineering Ethics and Public Policy." In H. Luegenbiehl, K, Neeley, and D. F. Ollis, eds., Liberal Education in 21st Century Engineering, Peter Lang, New York (in press).
  • 13 Martin, C. D., Huff, C. Gotterbarn, D., Miller, K. and Project ImpactCS Steering Committee. 1996. "Implementing a Tenth Strand In the Computer Science Curriculum (Second Report of the Impact CS Steering Committee)". Communications of the ACM 39 (2): 75-84.
  • 14 Soudek, I. H. "Turning Belief Into Action: Aims of Teaching Engineering Ethics," Proceedings of the 1999 ASEE Annual Conference (in press).

Earlier Versions

* 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.

Show More Show Less
Share with EEL Yes
Rights For more information on permissions to use this material please see:
Year 1999
Publisher provided Keywords education ENGINEERING Pedagogical Materials
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English
Cite this page: "ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000 and Engineering Ethics: Where Do We Go From Here?" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/26/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, December 11, 2016 <>