Designing Ethics to Improve Lives

This past week, six sections of Engineering Design and Communication (EGR 101) students presented posters, and in some cases prototypes of their semester’s work to the public. As a core part of Pratt’s recently revised first-year engineering curriculum, 327 students work in small teams to research and design an engineering solution to a problem specified by a real client. These clients range from individuals with disabilities in Durham to teams working to improve safety for divers in Chile. In such a diverse landscape of projects, students encounter a range of ethical issues through their work. This semester, the Bass Connections Scaffolding Ethics team has been developing methods to facilitate ethical awareness alongside the skills cultivated by EGR 101’s hands-on approach to engineering design.

Jessica Edelson, T ’22, applied to join the Bass team after a rewarding-but-ethically-complex EGR 101 experience: creating an accurate model of the female abdomen for postpartum medical training in rural Uganda. For whom should engineers be designing? Why were they working on a product for a population a world away when maternal mortality is a problem everywhere? “We felt like given that this was a problem in our own backyard, we could do a better job delivering a product for a population we understood better,” she says. The lesson for Jessica was that ethical considerations are always part of the practice of engineering.

Designing Ethics

Over the course of the semester the Bass Connections team has been exploring how to ensure that every first-year engineering student comes to understand the ethical dimensions of their work. Using the innovation process that is at the heart of engineering design, the team has spent the semester following a series of steps, including:

  • Understanding the “problem space” in which they are operating
  • Defining design criteria responsive to project objectives and constraints
  • Brainstorming many possible solutions, collaborating to make best possible version of each idea
  • Narrowing down the list to the most promising ideas
  • Creating prototypes ready to test


The team interviewed engineering faculty at Duke and at several peer institutions to gain a sense of best practices and approaches. They also interviewed EGR 101 students from last year, discovering a wide range of ethical sensitivity. The team’s output needed to work in a project-based environment that would facilitate reflection at multiple points in the process—while also allowing projects to continue towards completion. Several prototype ideas have been refined, including: a mapping exercise designed to show engineers’ influence in their problem space beyond the client and end user; an activity meant to demonstrate how different entities in a system might have conflicting values and priorities; and a new team of student “ethics mentors” who will work with EGR 101 teams.

This spring, the team will begin to evaluate these prototypes in the spring EGR 101 course. The hope is that some of these course innovations help engineering students learn how to detect and understand the kinds of normative trade-offs made at every stage of the design process.   Faculty Lead Ann Saterbak from the Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering said, “This reframing of the engineering design process with an eye toward ethical considerations will better prepare engineering students to tackle complex technical challenges.”

CHRISTIAN FERNEY is the program director at the Institute.

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