2nd Peace as a Global Language Conference Proceedings & Supplement

Ethical issues in language learning materials for engineering students
Japanese Title: 工学部の学生のための外国語(習得)教材における工学倫理
by Brian Cullen   (Nagoya Inst. of Technology) & Eowyn Brown   (Topia Edu-Consulting)


Over the last thirty years, considerable progress has been made in developing curricula that teaches engineering students the structures and vocabulary of scientific English. However, the need for engineers to consider the ethical aspects of their work merits more attention. While engineering is primarily a technical field, increasing concerns about the need to teach engineering students to consider the overall consequences of their work has emerged both from within and outside the engineering profession. Establishing engineering ethics as a part of the content base for English courses at the university level helps both to alleviate the long-term effects of the absence of such content in traditional engineering programs and at the same time provides meaningful content for language instruction.

Keywords: engineering ethics, scientific English, ESP, applied ethics, materials development
Japanese Abstract

キーワード: 工学倫理、英語教材
For many years, the specific needs of engineering students as language learners have been recognized (ex. Hutchinson & Waters, 1987; Strevens, 1998). Ample evidence of these specific needs is evident when one considers that the entire ESP (English for Specific Purposes) movement has its roots in efforts to provide suitable materials for teaching English for Science and Technology (EST). Over the last thirty years, considerable progress has been made in developing curricula that teaches students the structures and vocabulary of scientific English (ex. Hutchinson & Waters, 1987). Much of the content for ESP/EST courses is drawn from the technical specialization. For example, a course for teaching English to mechanical engineers might include a reading practice based on an extracts of a manual for a motor. This use of the specialization as content is an appropriate focus for engineers and prospective engineers who need to learn a foreign language.
In this paper, we examine engineering ethics, a content area that emerges from the technical specialization, but one which is not usually featured in EST courses or textbooks. While engineering is primarily a technical field, increasingly, concern regarding the failure to teach engineering students to consider the overall consequences of their work has emerged both from within and outside the engineering profession. For language teachers, this creates an interesting opportunity to incorporate engineering ethics as a content base in language courses.
Below, we will first discuss the growing need for engineers to consider the ethical aspects of their work. By ethical aspects, we mean an awareness of the need for professional conscience and the wider implications of one's work on society. This discussion is followed by an exploration of how this need can be exploited within the context of the ESL/EFL (English as a Second Language/English as a Foreign Language) classroom. Finally, we will describe one materials development project that incorporated these principles.

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Educating Engineers

The day to day duties of engineers require them to solve technical problems by conceptualizing, designing, and implementing innovations that serve specific functions. Engineers solve problems in communication, transportation, nutrition, sanitation, entertainment, education, business, industry and almost every other area of our lives. Specific examples include civil engineers who design our roads and bridges, mechanical engineers who design the machines that surround us, and electronic engineers who design the computers and electronic devices underlying the communications networks that are so important in the modern world.
Engineers approach problems in specific ways. Faced with a problem, the first question that an engineer will normally ask is: "Can this be done?" In answering this question, the engineer is demonstrating technical competence. Technical competence is a high-level, specialized skill acquired through the accrued experience of a career in the field. But before experience comes education.
What is involved in educating an engineer? Obviously, imparting a great deal of technical knowledge and procedures is at the core of engineering education. At schools and universities, engineering programs teach students to use tools such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry as the schemata for problem solving. In most engineering programs, technical subject lectures and laboratory work total almost 30 hours per week. This means that a typical engineering student takes very few general education courses, including very few foreign language courses, and sometimes none at all. This is true of engineering programs in many countries. An example of a rigorous technical approach with no general education courses can be seen on The University of Dublin's Bachelor in Engineeing course description website which states that:

The object of the degree course is to produce designers who are adaptable and will learn readily new approaches, applications and techniques, that is, engineers who have a broad-based understanding of discipline in addition to a detailed knowledge of their chosen specialism.

Table 1 shows a list of subjects which engineers study in their first two years at the university. The table illustrates the very solid grounding in the field of engineering, including the applicable mathematics and science courses, and extensive instruction in their specialty that engineering students receive. It also helps elucidate the shortcomings inherent in many engineering programs: the need to focus on such high level and specific skills has precluded engineering students from enrolling in courses not perceived to be relevant to their own field. This has traditionally meant that what students do not receive is training in examining the ethical implications of their innovations and problem solving.

Table 1. Courses for first and second year engineering students at the University of Dublin

1st Year Students
Engineering Mathematics I1 Engineering Mathematics III Computer Science I Physics
Engineering Science Graphics & Computer Aided Engineering Introduction to Engineering Chemistry
2nd Year Students
Engineering Mathematics III Engineering Mathematics IV Computer Science II Solids and Structures
Thermo Fluids Electronics Engineering Science Materials
Engineering Design Engineering Laboratories

It is true that universities in some countries such as the United States require students to take general education courses, but even in these cases engineering students are often guided relatively strictly into technical pathways. This is illustrated by this extract from the California State University at Chico engineering programs web site:

Computer Engineering is a major with modifications to the university's General Education Requirement. The following requirements fulfill the General Education Requirement . . . A3: Waived A4: MATH 007A.

While engineering students still receive more general education courses there than elsewhere in the world, the amount of technical study requires some humanities courses to be waived and others to be subsumed into the main technical training as courses such as mathematics.

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The Need for Engineering Ethics

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the need for engineers to receive not only technical and scientific training, but also to be taught how to consider the ethical questions which may arise in the course of their work. This is primarily because certain high profile cases have highlighted the need for engineers to understand the ethical and environmental implications of their work. A well-known case is the Aswan Dam in Egypt. This enormous construction project across the Nile River created a new lake and made it possible for farmers to grow an extra crop each year by holding back the summer flood that covers the banks of the Nile River. However, many critics believe that building the Aswan Dam was unwise. Apart from the enormous expense, there were serious environmental consequences. One is reduction in the annual floods which carried silt to form the topsoil needed for growing crops. Since the creation of the Aswan Dam, the farms on the formerly flooded banks have had to use expensive fertilizers in place of the silt. In addition, fish used to feed on the silt, and the people downstream who depend on fishing have been adversely affected. The dam has had a negative affect on soil quality, the fish population, and has disrupted the subsistence lifestyle of those who depended on these resources. The dam, from a purely technical viewpoint, is a success. The social and environmental results of the project were simply not adequately considered by engineers involved in the project.
Solving engineering problems often raises ethical and environmental issues such as these. In the case of the Aswan dam, the true consequences took years to recognize. But in many situations, even after many years, it is difficult to pinpoint the consequences with satisfactory specificity. For example, when a chemical engineer designs a process to decaffeinate coffee, it may leave residual carcinogenic chemicals. Similarly, when an electronic engineer designs a new lightweight cell phone, it may not be obvious that the reduced weight has led to less shielding from potentially dangerous electromagnetic waves. Even when a project is intended to be environmentally friendly, there may be hidden problems. For example, when mechanical engineers create machines to recycle paper, the chemicals used to remove the ink from the paper may cause water pollution. The enormous impact of consequences like these is a social concern which should trouble everyone: including the engineer who undertakes the project in the first place.
An engineer's judgment is vital. But this judgment should not be restricted merely to technical competence. Engineers should be taught to consider the overall impact of the projects they undertake. Engineering case studies such as the Aswan dam demonstrate to us that all outcomes of an engineering solution are not always obvious. It is unlikely that all possible outcomes can ever be identified, but an awareness of possible outcomes other than the intended one would greatly benefit society by reducing unplanned deleterious effects of engineering projects.
An engineer's judgment usually decides whether a project will be carried out or not. If the engineer says that a problem cannot be solved – that it just can't be done – it won't be done. This judgment has traditionally been based primarily on technical competence, which was developed through education and experience, but it is clear that it should include consideration of ethical facets as well. Engineers have traditionally asked whether something can be done, rather than whether it should be done. Ethical decisions were considered the realm of politicians, businessmen and other members of society, not within the realm of engineering design. However, there is a growing awareness that over-specialization can detract from engineers' knowledge rather than expand it. The concept of technical competence is gradually being expanded from "Can it be done (technically)?" to "Can it be done within the larger long-term framework of a sustainable world?"
Evidence of the growth of engineering ethics can be found in many places. For example, The Texas A&M Ethics Website asserts, "The field of engineering ethics will take its place alongside such well-established fields as medical ethics, business ethics, and legal ethics."
However beyond the heavy course work required of engineering students, there is another reason that engineering ethics is not being fully implemented into engineering programs. The Texas A&M Ethics Website further states:

. . . most engineering professors are not prepared to introduce literature in engineering ethics into their classrooms. They are most comfortable with quantitative concepts and often do not believe they are qualified to lead class discussions on ethics. Many engineering faculty members do not think that they have the time in an already overcrowded syllabus to introduce discussions on professional ethics, or the time in their own schedules to prepare the necessary material. [ibid.]
In Japan, there has been a movement to introduce more ethics into engineering education. The Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering Education (JABBEE) has advocated more ethics education at universities. For example, at Nagoya Institute of Technology, symposiums have been held resulting in a book titled Kougaku Rinri no Jouken [Engineering Ethics: Premises and Perspectives] (Ohnuki et al, 2002). It is thus clear that the importance of engineering ethics is beginning to be emphasized even if it has not yet been incorporated into the formal curriculum of most universities.
Although the importance of engineering ethics training is becoming increasingly recognized it is generally not implemented for two reasons. First, the typical engineering student's schedule is already busy making it difficult to introduce a new subject, especially one which, too often, is still considered peripheral to the needs of the profession. The second reason, that many engineering professors do not feel qualified to lead discussions on the subject of engineering ethics, possibly provides auxiliary teachers such as language teachers with an opportunity to encourage students to examine the important ethical issues raised by their professional involvement in various projects.

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Example of Materials Development incorporating Engineering ethics

While the ethics discussion was going on at the Nagoya Institute of Technology (NIT), Cullen was asked to write a textbook which would be used in all first year compulsory English classes. The timetable for the students at NIT is similar to the one shown above in Table 1, but students do take a small number of foreign language classes. Because of the previously enumerated problems of finding time for engineering ethics in the curriculum, it seemed that using engineering ethics as the content base for English classes would be appropriate. This worked particularly well in this case because, besides introducing the important topic of ethics to engineers, it would have the added benefit of making English a less peripheral subject in the engineering curriculum.
As Widdowson has pointed out (paraphrased in Nunan 1989, pp. 58), language courses have no inherent content and:
for those language programs whose goals relate to the development of academic skills, or which are preparing learners for further study . . . texts can be taken from subject areas in the school curriculum.
EST texts already draw much of their material from specialized engineering subjects, so adding ethics to the language classes is a natural extension. In addition, English teachers are generally more experienced in leading discussions than the engineering teachers who often feel that they are not qualified to lead discussions.
Using this as a rationale, Cullen produced materials for the language classes that would provide a framework in which to discuss engineering ethics and the environment as a content base for teaching English as a second language. The topics chosen for the materials are given in Table 2. As you can see, some of these sound similar to topics that would occur in a textbook for general learners of English. For example, a topic such as Food appears regularly in textbooks for general learners of English. In these materials, one unit is called Food Technology, and the content looks at the ethical concerns raised through the use of food additives and industrial farming methods. Similarly, in the unit titled Communication, the content focuses on the dangers of electromagnetic waves from cell phones.

Table 2 – Topics chosen for materials from the engineering ethics EFL text designed by the authors

1. History of Science and Technology 2. Communication 3. Population Studies
4. Energy 5. Food Technology 6. The Internet
7. Climate 8. Building Technology 9. The Media
10. Pollution 11. Robots and Artificial Intelligence 12. Future Scenarios

Learning Activities

The materials were aimed primarily at first year university students majoring in engineering. The students were divided into different classes according to level based on a placement test carried out at the beginning of the year and again sorted into new classes by level at the beginning of the second semester based on the achievement test of the first semester. Since the same textbook had to be used by all students, the materials had to be usable by students of varying English ability and motivation. To accommodate this, the learning activities were designed to provide different challenges to students of different levels, as in Table 3:

Table 3 – A one semester EFL for engineering syllabus

1. Starting Out 2. Conversation 3. Reading 1
4. Lecture 5. Talking Point 6. Listen for the Best Answer
7. Reading 2 8. Debate 9. Listening to Conversations
10. Writing 11. Reading Exchange 12. Research and Presentation
13. Work it Out

The purpose of most of these activities should be clear, but some will need an explanation. 'Talking Point' requires students to discuss the everyday aspects of the topic in pairs or small groups. 'Debate' is more challenging and is one of the key activities in each unit. It requires students to focus on the ethical and environmental aspects of the unit topic. It requires students to formulate, argue and defend their own opinions. Presentation is a very important skill for engineering students. In the future, students will need it for both company and academic conference presentations. Cullen has described these needs in greater detail elsewhere (Cullen, 2003). In the activity 'Research and Presentation,' students find information on the Internet or in the library and prepare their own short two minute presentation. Rather than presenting in front of the whole class, which is time-consuming and nerve-wracking for students, students form groups of four and make their presentations to the other members of their group. Finally, 'Work It Out' is a fun activity that combines language with mathematics. For example, in the unit on Food Technology, students listen to a man describing what he ate in one day and how much exercise he did. Combining this with a nutrition chart, they calculate how many calories he consumed and whether he is getting fatter or thinner. They follow this up by interviewing their partner and doing similar calculations. Engineering students enjoy this type of activity because unlike most language learning activities, it provides them with a clear final answer.

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The materials were completed in a preliminary form in April 2001 and after a one year pilot were published as a textbook in April 2002 by Intercom Press (Cullen 2002). A second edition of the book was published in April 2004. Most teachers using the textbook feel that the mixture of ethical and environment issues with engineering has worked well.


Engineering ethics as a content base for English language teaching provides an excellent opportunity for English teachers to approach the instruction of engineering students from a perspective other than the typical ESP/EST approach. The advantages of using a subject like ethics, in addition to the more traditional ESP/EST methods of instruction, are numerous and wide-ranging. Teaching ethics fills a gap in the conventional programs in which engineers are enrolled. Where English language courses are already required, but ethics courses are unavailable, this provides engineering students with a forum in which to explore this important subject while learning a second language. Additionally, a subject as overarching and complex as engineering ethics provides plenty of material for English language classes and is relevant and interesting to students. Finally, by introducing future engineers to the type of ethical issues which can be explored in an engineering ethics/English language classroom, we have the added benefit of teaching students to consider their role in society in new ways. In so doing, we have the possibility of achieving an educational benefit that reaches beyond either engineering or English: we have created the possibility of a better world.


California State University at Chico College of Computer Science, Engineering, and Technology. (2002). 2003-2005 University Catalog: Computer Engineering. Available online at http://www.csuchico.edu/catalog/cat03/programs/engr/bs_coen.html. (Accessed 17 April 2004).

Cullen, B. (2002). Humanity and Technology. Fukuoka: Intercom Press.

Cullen, B. (2003). Presentations in the Technical English Classroom. in M. Swanson & K. Hill (eds.). Conference Proceedings of the 2002 JALT National Conference. Tokyo: JALT. pp 220 - 224.

Engineering Ethics. (n.d.) Introducing Ethics Case Studies Into Required Undergraduate Engineering Courses. Available at http://ethics.tamu.edu/. (Accessed 28 Nov. 2003).

Hutchinson, T. & Waters, A. (1987). English for specific purposes: A learner-centered approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. 1989. Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ohnuki, T., Sakashita, K. & Seguchi, M. (2002). Kougaku Rinri no Jouken [Engineering Ethics: Premises and Perspectives]. Kyoto: Koyo Shyobo.

Robins, A. & Cullen, B. (2002). Technical English in Japanese Universities: ESP or Diversity? The Bulletin of Aichi University of Education. 51, pp. 105-111.

Strevens, P. (1988). The learner and the Teacher of ESP. in D. Chamberlain & R. J. Baumgardner (eds.). ESP in the Classroom: Practice and Evaluation. ELT Documents: 128. Oxford: Modern English Publications in Association with the British Council.

University of Dublin School of Engineering. (n.d.) Bachelor in Engineering (TR032). Available online at http://www.tcd.ie/engineering/Courses/BAI/. (Accessed 20 July 2004).

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