Intergenerational Instruction in Engineering Ethics about the Future

Author(s): Rosalyn W. Berne, University of Virginia

The teaching of engineering ethics is often focused on personal, moral choices made within the Engineering professional. One common and highly effective approach to teaching professional ethics is to retrospectively use case scenarios, which recount real ethical dilemmas that were encountered inside actual organizational settings.

Case studies allow for the student to engage personally inside of the roles of various players in a given scenario. With the benefit of a hind's sight view, cases provide students with individual perspectives of various characters in a particular dilemma, and an opportunity to understand the breadth and depth of moral complexity in everyday professional life.

The case method of study, however, is not feasible for consideration of developing, future technologies, such as nanotechnology, cloning, cyber intelligence an genetic engineering technologies that hold the potential to radically alter the fundamental nature of human biological life. To think about moral choices to be made in a yet undetermined technological future, a different pedagogical approach must be undertaken.

How do engineering educators adequately and richly introduce to young engineers the perplexing, ethical issues associated with the development of new technologies? Robotics, nanotechnology, cloning, cyber-intelligence and genetic engineering, for example, each hold the potential to radically alter the fundamental nature of human life. Senior citizens in our society have a lifetime of experience adopting new technologies into their lives. What is not understood is the importance of the voices of seniors in the development of new technologies, and particularly, in the ethical issues which they raise.

Young engineers who think about the future in age-segregated classrooms simply cannot have the perspective needed to deeply understand and appreciate the ethical issues at stake. And senior study groups are isolated from the dialogue taking place among the next generation of engineers and scientists. Through an intergenerational dialogue, undergraduate engineers can come to appreciate and understand what technological change can really mean, both in practical and ethical terms. In seeking to explore together, the ethical issues of developing technologies, a dynamic exchange between undergraduate students and seniors enrolled in a life-long learning course on technology, demonstrates how intergenerational learning can enliven and enhance moral deliberation about the future.

Practically speaking, an ongoing intergenerational curriculum in an Engineering School is an unlikely goal. But as a field trip, the intergenerational experience can provide a way to go deeper, and beyond what is normally possible in the Engineering Ethics classroom. Sitting together with intelligent, well-read senior citizens is an experience the undergraduate engineers will continue to refer to again and again. In a culture of pervasive generational isolation such as ours, intergenerational pedagogy offers an element of learning that can, to some degree, compensate for the social isolation that persists.

Here is excerpts from an engineering student essay on an intergenerational dialogue about the technological future:

"Contrary to my stereotype of all elderly being traditional and stubborn minded, I was surprised to find that the senior citizens we were talking to were open-minded, welcomed new ideas, and possessed great interest in what would lie in front of mankind under the rapid growth of technology, even though they might not be able to see it happen."

"I am still not certain whether I ought to be hesitant or thrilled to admit that I was more engaged by our discussion at the Jefferson Institute for Life Long Learning last Wednesday morning than I am by a typical class discussion here in the engineering school."

"My mind was certainly opened by the J.I.L.L students. They were as bright and insightful as we were even though it seemed that our generation had an advantage because of our personal experience with current technology. Age proved not to be a major factor when were tried to predict future outcomes of humans and technology. Neither the wisdom of our elders nor the new imaginings of the present generation could accurately predict how the imminent merge of life and technology will happen."

And that, perhaps, is the point of an intergenerational exercise. When engineering students join with retired senior citizens to discuss technology and the future, what is revealed is the nearly insurmountable complexity we face in trying to imagine, and untangle, the life we are creating tomorrow, with the development of technology today. Where do we find the answers to questions of what is right, what should happen and should not, relative to the way we will use and adapt to, and perhaps depend upon technological developments to come? Alone, the young engineers can fantasize and debate over what might be real, but do not have the breadth of experience, the depth of wisdom, or the near-to death perspective to truly understand. Alone, the senior citizens can reflect, discuss and lament over what their grandchildren's lives may bring. But they have no sense of influence, creative ability or skills to help direct the path of technology. Perhaps most importantly for the senior citizens, their optimism and hope for the future is reinforced as a result of hearing and exchanging fears, ambitions and perplexities, with undergraduate engineers who will soon begin to build the future the senior citizens will never know. Only together might both groups fully explore the ethical implications of our technological destiny.

Cite this page: "Intergenerational Instruction in Engineering Ethics about the Future" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/19/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Thursday, October 30, 2014 <www.onlineethics.org/Topics/EmergingTech/TechEssays/genberne.aspx>