New Program at Duke to Embed Ethics in Engineering, Computer Science Education

February 14, 2019

An interdisciplinary ethics program will offer Duke students a framework for navigating the challenges posed by advanced technologies

Sun breaks through clouds above Fitzpatrick Center

Some of most exciting areas of technological research also generate complex ethical challenges: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and machine learning, privacy and data science, autonomous systems, energy and new materials discovery are some of the field’s most popular—and most controversial—areas of study. 

To prepare students to evaluate tough issues in tech and make responsible professional decisions, Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering is launching a new program that will embed ethics education across the engineering and computer science curricula. 

The Lane Family Ethics in Technology Program, established with a three-year, $300,000 commitment from Grayson and David Lane, will support faculty-led course content, extracurricular activities and an annual symposium focused on ethics in technology.

"We want Duke Engineers to think not only about the development of new technologies, but also about their context, and how they can best serve society."

RAvi Bellamkonda
Vinik Dean of Engineering 

“We want Duke Engineers to think not only about the development of new technologies, but also about their context, and how they can best serve society,” said Ravi Bellamkonda, the Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. “Emerging technologies have powerful consequences, and our goal is to prepare thoughtful leaders who can help realize their potential for good and minimize unintended harm.”  

The program draws on a deep well of expertise across Duke University, with an interdisciplinary oversight committee composed of faculty members from Engineering, Law, Medicine, Divinity, Sociology, Computer Science and beyond. 

Led by senior associate dean of engineering George A. Truskey, the committee will invite engineering and computer science faculty to submit proposals to design course materials, software, experiences and modules that incorporate ethics. The committee will evaluate the proposals, select the strongest for funding, and serve as coaches, in a collaborative effort to embed ethics content into relevant courses.

“The increasing reality is that students will encounter significant ethical issues in the future of their engineering practices. We have not traditionally and increasingly must explicitly prepare students to thoughtfully and effectively navigate these challenging issues by integrating ethics into their core engineering curriculum,” said committee member Nita Farahany, who, as director of Duke’s Science and Society Program, is helping to develop an academic program that integrates Ethics, Policy, and Computer Science. “The Lane Family Ethics in Technology Program is truly exciting opportunity to prepare students to gain specific knowledge of the ethical standards and values that are integral to an engineer’s professional life.”

Suzanne Shanahan, the Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, is also on the oversight committee. Together with Duke Engineering First-year Experience Director Ann Saterbak, Shanahan received funding for a Bass Connections project that marries ethics to engineering in EGR 101, the first-year design class required of all engineering students. “Engineering challenges—from access to clean water, to securing cyberspace, to improving urban infrastructure, to the development of new communication technologies—all raise thorny ethical questions. An ability to deftly navigate complex ethical dilemmas and trade-offs should be a foundational element of any engineering education, but rarely is,” said Shanahan. “The Lane Family Ethics in Technology Program represents a wonderful opportunity for Duke to become a national leader in integrating normative analysis and ethical decision-making into its engineering and computer science curriculum.”

"If society questions the purpose and motivations of companies that supply technology solutions, then adoption will slow or stop, and that’s a missed opportunity to influence the world in a positive way."

DAVID LANE

Donor David Lane agrees. “The confluence of many world-class schools and institutes at Duke makes it a unique place to look at difficult but timely discussions about how society should function,” he said. “Duke students will be leaders in the future, so it’s critical that they develop an ethical framework today, and are able to implement it—especially as they move into key leadership positions in business, in government, and at nonprofits and other organizations.” 

In making its gift, said Lane, his family wanted to ensure that people around the world continue to benefit from new technology. “Ethics and morals are key components in ensuring the longevity and global adoption of technology,” said Lane. “If society questions the purpose and motivations of companies that supply technology solutions, then adoption will slow or stop, and that’s a missed opportunity to influence the world in a positive way.” 

A workshop will be held in March 2019 to discuss ways to integrate ethics into engineering and computer science classes and identify potential courses for supporting ethics modules, according to Truskey. Students can expect to experience embedded ethical content in grant-awarded classes beginning in the fall. 

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