Educating future engineers to effectively reason through complex ethical decisions encountered in the design and development of new technologies is a critical and relevant challenge. However, a coherent framework to analyze ethical issues with emerging technologies has not been widely adopted. Over three years, we developed and tested an innovative approach to teaching ethical reasoning that integrates a reflexive process of evaluation in a cyber-enabled learning environment. We posited that ethics should: be taught as a reasoning process; allow significant interaction between students; and include reflective application of ethical principles as part of a coherent, reflexive framework. To respond to this need, we developed: a) a pedagogical framework for ethics education of Scaffolded, Interactive, and Reflective Analysis (SIRA) that extends beyond case-based analyses; b) a coherent ethical reasoning approach, Reflexive Principlism (RP), applicable within engineering; and c) four case-based modules, integrating the SIRA/RP approach, with a novel, multimedia learning platform, each deliverable in a hybrid format for stand-alone course or embedded curricular applications.
Previously, we have demonstrated that ethical reasoning scores of engineering students increase significantly as a result of participating in our SIRA/RP courses. In this paper, we explore the research question: “Which characteristics of the SIRA approach contribute to changes in ethical reasoning.” To assess our framework we designed a SIRA assessment scale that uses student reported ratings of effectiveness of the scaffolding, interactivity, and reflective analysis characteristics of the course. After pilot-testing and refinement, the 12-item scale and sub-scales were found to be highly consistent (α = .847). To determine which SIRA characteristics contributed to increased ethical reasoning scores we ran a hierarchical multiple regression analysis with satisfaction and SIRA efficacy scores as predictors. Controlling for GPA, course semester, and native language, we modeled pre-course satisfaction with the quality of ethics education and ethical concepts taught, and the SIRA subscales for scaffolding, interactivity, and reflectivity. The model was statistically significant in predicting ethical reasoning scores, accounting for 32% of the variance in the data. The strongest predictor was the reflectivity component of our framework (ß=.433), indicating that reflectivity elements of the course are significantly important to ethical reasoning change. We also analyzed student rankings of activities associated with the learning framework. Findings indicate that our integration of novel multimedia presentations of the case studies and the case study discussions were the two most important activities contributing to engagement, understanding, critical thinking, and guiding decision-making.
These findings suggest that a coherent pedagogical framework grounded in reflexive principlism and emphasizing interactivity and reflectivity can effectively enhance the ethical reasoning of future engineers in a cyber-enabled delivery of just four cases, in as little as eight weeks. We contribute an evidence-based solution to address curricular needs of engineering ethics, and extend understanding of contributing factors to ethical reasoning development.