Improving ethics studies through a spiral themed curriculum: Implementing ethics discussion at the sophomore level

Christan Whysong, Jenny Lo, Kumar Mallikarjunan

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


To enhance ethics training during the undergraduate career, engineering ethics material should be presented throughout the engineering curriculum. In continuation of the Department Level Reform (DLR) project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), two departments at Virginia Tech aim to implement ethics throughout a four-year program by utilizing a spiral-themed curriculum. Preliminary work consisted of compiling a library of ethics case studies related to Biological Systems Engineering (BSE), particularly Bioprocess Engineering, along with different methods of implementing these ethics case studies. This work was presented during the 2006 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition.1 As the project moved to its second phase, the two departments have begun incorporating the library of ethics case studies in a designated sophomore course. Initial work focused on genetically modified products because they incorporate several key ethical issues. A key theme of the spiral curriculum, sustainability can be observed as students review genetic modification of major food crops, such as cottonseed. Students may also study how different countries view genetically modified products while looking at labeling laws found in each country. Patents can be studied when looking at the patenting of specific genes and the idea of the terminating gene. It was concluded the best method for incorporating ethics training into the BSE curriculum is to utilize already existing labs and projects by adding ethics material to them. Sophomores in BSE are currently required to take an Introduction to Biological Systems Engineering course in which they perform an oil extraction laboratory with cottonseed. As part of this laboratory, students were provided with a brief introduction to genetically modified products. They were then asked to consider potential differences that might occur in the production of cottonseed oil if genetically modified cottonseed were used as the raw material instead of the naturally occurring cottonseed as part of an informal written assignment and class discussion. For example, students were asked about labeling and marketing of the oil and if the production waste should be treated any differently. Additionally, students completed a survey at the end of the ethics exercise to provide their feedback. Of interest was whether the students felt there was even an ethical issue present, the complexity of the thought process used when responding to the questions, students' openness to the discussion format, and the successes and challenges of implementing ethics material with this specific laboratory. A summary of these findings are presented in this paper.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Jan 1 2007
Event114th Annual ASEE Conference and Exposition, 2007 - Honolulu, HI, United States
Duration: Jun 24 2007Jun 27 2007


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