Teaching Ethics Using Problem-Based Learning in an Intro ECE Course

Miriam Sweeney
Associate Professor
The University of Alabama

Need: Research supports using instructional methods for teaching ethical reasoning in STEM fields. Compared to lecture, active learning approaches, such as problem-based learning (PBL), are shown to increase student exam scores and decrease student failure rates. However, researchers have not focused on use of PBL for teaching ethical reasoning and decision making in college-level engineering courses.

Guiding Question: The guiding question in this study is: Is PBL an effective pedagogy to teach ethical reasoning in support of social responsibility to freshman electrical and computer engineering (ECE) students during their primary introduction to the discipline? In addition, this project aims to explore
• how engineering students’ perceptions of social responsibility change after an ethics-focused course,
• the persistence of these changes over time, and
• perceptions compared to engineering students without the freshman ethics focus.

Outcomes (progress to date): We redesigned ECE 121, a core course for ECE freshman that is an introduction to electrical and computer engineering, to center ethics in the profession. Three sections (two PBL and one lecture style) were delivered in the Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters. Across these three sections, 135 (PBL = 70, Lecture = 65) students participated. We had an 80% completion rate on pre- and post-course surveys to assess students’ perceptions of social responsibility. These students will be invited to complete these surveys annually throughout their undergraduate studies to evaluate how their perceptions change over-time. Additional student data will be gathered in 6 additional sections of ECE 121 (3 PBL, 3 Lecture) from 2022 to 2024. Early results suggest the redesign is being received positively based on student opinions of instruction collected in Fall 2021. The PBL and lecture sections received mean scores of 4.33 and 4.15 (out of 5) to the prompt “The course was a valuable experience”, with options from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Next efforts by the team will review and score educational artifacts from both PBL and lecture style courses to quantify differences in ethical reasoning between these groups.

Broader Impacts: During this program’s 3-year duration approximately 440 electrical and computer engineering students will learn ethical and social dimensions of the discipline through participation in ECE 121. Such participation will contribute to their ethical awareness and reasoning and to instilling engineering ethics as a foundation of engineering education that supports creating a broader culture of socially responsible STEM researchers. We expect the results and materials will be relevant and applicable for faculty looking to develop ethical reasoning and awareness that persists over time. We anticipate that by highlighting how the engineering profession can engage in socially responsible practices that positively impact diverse communities, students from under-represented groups may be more psychologically involved in their education, which could lead to greater engagement and retention of under-represented minority groups in our ECE population.



Miriam Sweeney, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL; Claire Major, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL; Todd Freeborn, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL