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A Contemplative Process for Teaching Ethics in STEM and the Humanities/Social Sciences

Here we will propose a new approach to teaching ethics to undergraduates. First, we ask the students to contemplate and reflect on an ethical dilemma that is related to their disciplinary topic. Then we ask the students as a group to create an Interdependence Diagram that shows many of the components of the ethical dilemma and the relationships of the components to each other. This diagram also includes other elements of the dilemma, such as financial aspects, personal relationships, etc. This exercise will give the students a basis for thinking through the ethical dilemma.

To test how this process worked, we conducted some research in ENGE1215 classes at Virginia Tech in the Fall of 2017 using a pre-defined protocol. Based on 70 responses from students, they responded quite favorably. In particular, they acknowledged that these ethical dilemmas are much complex and more difficult than they initially expected.

Section 1. Introduction

As several researchers have pointed out (Harding, T. el al, 2010; Harris, C. E. 2008; Jurak, S., et al, 2015; Schmidt, J., 2014; Stappenbelt, B., 2012; Walczak, K., et al, 2010) there have been many problems with teaching ethics in STEM to undergraduates. These problems range from student engagement to efficacy of the teaching methods employed to the lack of commitment on the part of faculty and institutions. These difficulties facing ethics in STEM education are not divorced from pressures facing higher education more generally. These pressures may unfortunately result in the development of a ‘hidden curriculum’ that is at odds with the stated aims of professional ideals or accrediting practices, but which students absorb (Alsubaie 2015).  These include pressures to rush into narrow ‘problem-solving’ mode before recognizing the scope of problems. Learning takes time and is based in relationships.  This observation is true for learning information, so it is especially true for complex and integrative issues, like ethics, which has no simple answers. Each of us is faced with the basic question of “how one should live” with oneself and with others. Ethics is essential for answering this question, lest we drift aimlessly, letting others make these decisions for us.

To teach ethics, theoretical approaches are insufficient; indeed didactic and discursive approaches are not sufficient. Whether theory is necessary, and if so when and in what contexts, is not obvious.  In a pluralistic and technologically complex world, acquaintance with the dominant theoretical approaches of Consequentialism and Kantianism/Deontology is likely necessary – if for no other reason than to recognize how deeply embedded they are as dominant modes for approaching the ethical dilemmas of shared living and how they influence decisions and policies. They are also deeply embedded in regulation in many areas including occupational safety and health, environmental protection, and many other areas of the research like manufacture and sale of drugs. These regulations are often structured in the form of prescriptive rules and practices. They can evolve with unexpected technological and ethical failures, but even so, they are not alone sufficient to ensure proper outcome or behavior. Likewise, stand-alone courses in ethics can be helpful, as can case-based or problem-based approaches, but by themselves they are insufficient in STEM education and in ethics education generally. 

Often ethical dilemmas are multidimensional in that they may involve aspects of the workplace, in the home life, and the spiritual/religious life as well as aspects that are not explicitly “ethical.” This complexity will cause the implications of an ethical dilemma to unfold only after considerable reflection, or they appear after an ethical decision is made. It may not be clear how to evaluate many conflicting dimensions of an ethical dilemma because they involve elements that may not be regarded as simply “ethical” from a rushed or restricted purview.  Into this environment, everyone will bring his or her own priorities and judgments where there are no clear choices. Everyone will have a reach her/his own stance based on trade-offs of her/his own priorities.

Actualizing any of this ethical knowledge depends not only on qualities of personal character, personal experience, and emotional intelligence, but also to the adequacy of technical and ethical education and the opportunity to consider the ethical dimensions of technical problems. It is one thing to understand the best course of action in a situation but another to be able to follow through with that course of action – especially to act on the conclusion that risks or negative outcomes cannot be reduced to “acceptable” levels. This complexity of ethical issues is illustrated in a personal story of one of the authors below.

Here we will propose a new approach to introducing ethics to undergraduates. First, we ask the students to contemplate and reflect on an ethical dilemma that is related to their disciplinary topic. That is, we ask them to think as if they are part of the ethical dilemma. Then we ask the students as a group to diagram out all the components of the ethical dilemma and the relationships of the components to each other. This diagram is called the Interdependence Diagram. This diagram also accounts for other aspects (micro- and macro-level) of their jobs such as financial aspects, personal relationships, relationships with co-worker, environmental issues, etc. This exercise will give the students a basis for thinking through the ethical dilemma and its broader implications. This approach is a departure from the aforementioned problem-solving approaches, including Consequentialism and Kantianism/Deontology as well as Professional Codes.

We conducted class research in a freshman engineering class at Virginia Tech to see how this approach worked. Following the approach above (and outlined in detail below), we lead the students through the exercise based on the Volkswagen scandal (Hotten, 2015). Then we asked a couple of questions to get their reaction. The results are discussed below.

In Section 2 we discuss a motivation for our research based on the experience of one of the authors. In Section 3 we discuss the Interdependence Diagram. In Section 4 we discuss the research project. In Section 5 we discuss results of the research. In Section 6 we interpret the results of the research project. Section 7 has the conclusions.

Section 2. Motivation for Research

To motivate our approach, we would like to explain the experience of one of the authors in making an ethic decision.

“I was involved with a DoD funded project called ‘INSTAR – INertially STAbilized Rifle.’ This was a medium sized project that involved two other groups at different institutions.

In general, small arms are difficult to aim because the target is not stable when viewed through the sights. The idea was to develop a vertical handgrip that could be added to a sniper rifle as shown in Figure 1.\

This handgrip would provide stabilization for the rifle so that when the shooter would look through the sights, the target would not appear to jump around. The effect would be similar to a camera with a telephoto lens where the image appears to be stable. (The camera image is actively stabilized.) The benefits to the Army were obvious.

After working on this project for two years, and thinking about the ethical concerns over that time period, here were my major concerns:

  • The project satisfied by department’s (university’s) requirement for funded research.
  • I was working with a group of people whom I liked.
  • The technical issues were challenging and rewarding.
  • The grant was yielding publications, also required by my department.
  • The grant was supporting a graduate student.
  • The grant presented challenges to my spiritual beliefs because it was directly connected to war.

After much reflection, I decided that my spiritual concerns were more important than the other benefits afforded by the grant. I dropped out of the project.”

This example provides several insights into the process of making an ethical decision.

  • The decision involved non-ethical components.

In the example above, the ethical components (the spiritual beliefs) were balanced against the funding, publications, and working with friends.

  • The decision did not involve any professional ethics code infractions.

The project was compliant with all the ethical codes.

  • The decision was personal.

This project was NOT compatible with MY personal spiritual beliefs. I suspect many other people would have been happy to continue with this project.  In general, there is not one ethical decision that is right for everyone. This kind of thinking is not typical of what is taught in STEM classes, where most problems have one answer.

  • The decision was not cut and dried.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me what I should do, because several aspects of the project were compelling to me. STEM students are exposed to many problems that have one answer and their training is to find it quickly. Thus, ethics dilemmas pose challenges for them to understand since there is no right answer.

  • It took me several years to come to this decision.

Students often expect to arrive at THE answer in a short period of time. Many ethical decisions are open-ended and require time and reflection to arrive at a decision.

It is the overall goal of this work to get students to the point where they can make the kind of ethical decision described above for their selves.

Section 3. Description of the Interconnection Diagram

In this paper we will describe a contemplative process we have been developing to get students thinking about how ethics fits into their workplace. The essential idea is to engage the students through a contemplative process of actively involving them in an ethical dilemma relevant to their disciplinary training. Then students expand their understanding of the factors involved in the dilemma through a group process. Our ultimate goal is to get the students to the point where they can make ethical judgments on a real-time basis using a framework that builds upon and enriches their own lived ethical standard.

Step 1 (Preliminary)

The first step is to identify an ethical dilemma that is immediately relevant to the students. Of course, the whole process is hypothetical, however, for it to work it is necessary for the students to be able to identify with ethical dilemma. The following example will illustrate what we mean.

In Fall 2017 we applied this process to engineering students at Virginia Tech and to journalism students at the University of Kansas. The ethical situation we used was based on the Volkswagen scandal in September 2015.  The Environmental Protection Agency found that many Volkswagen cars have a software program installed that allows the cars to detect whether their emissions are being tested and thereby change and improve the testing results (Hotten, 2015).

In the engineering classes, we posed the question: “Suppose you are a new engineer at Volkswagen (VW), and you are asked to engage in work that will cause the engines to violate US Environmental regulations. How will you respond?”

In the journalism classes, we posed the question: “Your job is to role out a huge marketing campaign trumpeting company cars with low carbon dioxide emissions. It also became clear that these emissions were only low at government testing stations but not elsewhere. How will you respond?”

Step 2 (Preliminary)

The second step of the process is to ask the students chose a role in the ethical situation (if it isn’t obvious or there is some choice). Then we ask the students to reflect on their role, in essence asking them to put themselves in the situation. That is, we are asking them take on a contemplative role, although we may not language it that way. In the example above, we ask them to imagine they are a young engineer at Volkswagen or imagine they are a young marketing professional. While taking on a role is not critical to the exercise (everyone should be lead to all the aspects of the ethical dilemma), it is a way to get the students to contemplate the situation. Then we ask them to write a paper on all of the aspects of the situation including the ethical aspects.

This exercise helps to prepare them for the following.

Step 3 (In-class exercise)

Having collected the papers, we move on to an in-class exercise where all the students participate. We ask them to collectively to construct an Interdependence Diagram of the ethical dilemma. An assigned scribe at a white board or at an overhead projector facilitates the drawing of this Interdependence Diagram. An example of the Interdependence Diagram for the Volkswagen dilemma is shown in Figure 2.

This diagram is constructed in two stages. In the first stage the students are asked to contribute components related to the ethical dilemma shown in circles. Note that these components are not all related directly to the ethical dilemma. Some are related various aspects of the job such as “family,” “promotions,” and “company financial situation.”

Having identified the components, the second stage is to identify how all these components are related by drawing lines between the components. This process continues until the students run out of ideas. (Note that is all cases we in which we have experience, the students missed some components or connections.)

The Interdependence Diagram shows the students the complexity of even a simple ethical dilemma. At this point, we could proceed in several directions, including in-class discussion or additional written work. (Our constraints did not permit this additional work.) Obviously, anyone would have to reflect on the situation before making any decisions.

Section 4. Description of the Research Project

Because we wanted to see if this method was successful in getting students to think about ethics, we conducted research on two classes. The first class at the University of Kansas was JOUR 460: Research Methods in Strategic Communication class. The second class at Virginia Tech was ENGE 1215 – Introduction to Engineering. It had 120 freshman students who had no introduction to ethics. These students were given the option to participate in the research. The results below are for the 70 students who decided to submit answers to us. In both classes we followed the same procedures but at the University of Kansas we didn’t collect any written data.

We asked the ENGE 1215 students to write an essay prior to the in-class exercise of constructing the Interconnection Diagram. Following the in-class exercise, the ENGE students were asked three questions:

1) This in-class exercise expanded my understanding of this ethical dilemma.

(Five possible responses: Strongly disagree [1] – Strongly Agree [5]),

2) If the in-class exercise expanded your understanding of the ethical dilemma, briefly explain what components came to your attention?

3) Did the in-class exercise change your decision? Briefly explain.

Section 5. Description of Results

We collected qualitative data from the essay that students completed prior to the in-class exercise and both qualitative and quantitative data after the exercise. The results are explained next.

We started with the responses of the post-exercise question:

“This in-class exercise expanded my understanding of this ethical dilemma.”

The responses were obtained on a 5-point scale (with one being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree). The results are shown in Figure 3.

On average the participants’ responses were 3.31, indicating that the in-class exercise was somewhat helpful to them.

We also compared students’ qualitative responses prior to and after the in-class exercise. First, we reviewed the Interdependence Diagrams to develop a coding scheme that encompasses twelve categories. These categories covered micro and macro issues, including:

Family issues, personal integrity, personal financial, promotions, job security, environmental issues, technical challenge, relationship to co-workers, workplace reputation, company reputation, company integrity and legal issues.

To these categories we added “complexity and more difficult” based on the post-exercise responses of the students. Then each researcher independently coded a portion of students’ essays submitted prior to the in-class exercise. The results are shown in Figure 4.

If a student included one of the categories above in his essay, then this category was included as a blue line in Figure 4. For example, “Family Issues” was identified in 35 student essays. We included all categories identified by each student.

In general, the blue data in Figure 4 showed that participants in their first essay mentioned factors mostly at the personal level, such as personal financial concerns, personal integrity and family issues. Macro factors also emerged, including environmental and legal issues, demonstrating that participants were capable of extending decision-making to a broad level.

Next, each researcher also independently reviewed and coded participants’ responses to the question:

“If the in-class exercise expanded your understanding of the ethical dilemma, briefly explain what components came to your attention?”

For each category identified by each student, this category was identified in red as one unit.

The red data in Figure 4 shows the extension of student responses post-exercise. That is, Figure 4 shows how much the Interconnection Diagram impacted the students thinking about the ethical dilemma. The red responses represent each student’s thinking in the post-exercise (i.e. beyond what they put into their pre-exercise essay).

Figure 4 clearly shows the impact of the in-class construction of the Interdependence Diagram Of particular interest is the emergence of the recognition to the “complexity” and ‘difficulty” of the ethical dilemma. Common student responses included how interrelated all of the components are.

Finally, we divided the student responses according to the five categories that each participant self-identified on the question “This in-class exercise expanded my understanding of this ethical dilemma” discussed above. These results are shown in Figure 5.

For those who regarded this in-class exercise to be the least helpful, we noticed a total of six categories being mentioned, including micro-factors (family issues, personal financial, and job security) and macro-factors (environmental issues, relationship to coworkers, and legal issues). Because they rated the exercise to be the least helpful, none of the post-exercise categories were mentioned, therefore prohibiting a comparison between the pre- and post-data.

Moving from the least helpful to most helpful ratings, we noticed more categories were mentioned in the pre- and post-exercise essay. While micro-factors are the most popular in students’ essays, we noticed a slight increase in macro-factors. Participants generally acknowledged the complexity of the ethical dilemma, especially those who agreed with the usefulness of the in-class exercise (i.e., those rated 4 or 5).

Section 6. Discussion of Results

Based on the results in Section 5, we found that participants generally found the discussion to be helpful. Because of participants’ lived experience, it is not surprising to note the emergence of personal factors, such as family issues and personal finance. This exercise, however, helped student recognize the complexity of the ethical dilemma while stressing that there is no right or wrong answer. Participants who thought the in-class exercise was helpful noticed the complexity and the difficulty of the ethical dilemma more so than those who rated the in-class exercise as less helpful.

The following comment by a student aptly describes the student’s experience with the contemplative exercise:

“The in-class exercise broadened by knowledge of ethics and made me realize all the implications of an ethical dilemma. By creating the visual map of an ethical dilemma, I realized how many factors were at play when deciding what decision to make, and how many people are affected.”

Section 7. Conclusions

In this paper we have presented a new contemplative process for introducing students to ethical dilemmas. The key components of the process include:

  • The students are asked to be involved in an ethical dilemma that directly relates to their academic discipline.
  • The process includes the in-class construction of an Interconnection Diagram.

Instead of featuring a problem-based approach, the process we introduced provides a space for the students to ponder the myriad possibilities that may emerge in an ethical dilemma. They also gain a first hand exposure to the thinking process from other students. Moreover, this approach can be adapted to various ethical dilemmas in various disciplines.

Based on results from the protocol driven studies described here, we conclude that this methodology can be used to increase the awareness of the ethical components of technical problems. This process also highlights the fact that many ethical decisions are interrelated with non-ethical components such as family, finance, promotions, and technical considerations. We believe that this experiential approach to ethical analysis can complement the study of ethical systems that are essential underpinnings of ethics decision-making in the technological domain. Future research should continue to expand and examine the utility of using contemplative practices to teach ethics.


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Hotten, R., 2015. “Volkswagen: The scandal explained.” Retrieved from

Jurak, Sarah, Emil Jurak, and Ramazan Asmatulu. 2015. “Current State of Bioethics Relating to Biotechnology for Engineering Education.” American Society for Engineering Education, Zone III Conference.

Schmidt, Jon Alan, 2014. “Changing the Paradigm for Engineering Ethics.” Science and Engineering Ethics. 20:985–1010. 

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Stappenbelt, Brad, 2012. “Ethics in engineering: student perceptions and their professional identity development.” Journal of Technology and Science Education. 3 (1), 86-93.

Walczak, Kelley, Cynthia Finelli, Matthew Holsapple, Janel Sutkus, Trevor Harding and Donald Carpenter. 2010. “Institutional Obstacles for Integrating Ethics into the Curriculum and Strategies for Overcoming Them,” AC 2010-1506.


Richard S. Bowles III, Ph.D. is Chairman of the Board of Lachman Associates, a regulatory consulting company. He was most recently executive vice president and chief ethics & compliance officer for Merck & Co., Inc. (retired). Bowles earned both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemical engineering from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Princeton University. He is active on the advisory and oversight boards of a number of Universities. Bowles, dharma name shinsui, is a long time Zen practitioner and an ordained daojin (person of the way) in the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. 

Yvonnes Chen is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. She is one of the five 2017 Outstanding Educators honored by the KU Torch Chapter of the Mortar Board, a senior honors society. Chen’s research centers on designing effective programs to promote healthy lifestyles. Her most recent research focuses on how the brain is a window to understanding the effects of persuasive messages. Fluent in three languages, Chen is a classical music and opera enthusiast — and a wannabe rock climber.

Agnes B. Curry, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy and Director of General Education at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. Her teaching includes contemporary ethics, social theory, and philosophical approaches to happiness, with a major concern to promote inclusive discourses. She integrates meditation and other mindfulness techniques into her courses. 

Douglas K Lindner, PhD, Electrical and Computer Engineering, was on the faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering at VA Tech from 1982 to 2017. He was the Fredrick Lenz Fellow at Naropa University for 2013-14. His interests include contemplative practices for STEM. He practices meditation and qigong.

A Contemplative Process for Teaching Ethics in STEM and the Humanities/Social Sciences
Collection 2018 Contemplative Practices for 21st Century Higher Education
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Prof. Emeritus Douglas K. Lindner, , Richard S. Bowles III, Ph.D., Prof. Agnes B. Curry, Prof. Yvonnes Chen
Year published 2018
Original year published 2018