2007 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Honolulu, HI. Session 2240.

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The case method: Using case-based instruction to increase ethical understanding in engineering courses Introduction

The paper presents a discussion of how case-based instruction is performed and the perceived benefits of its application. We begin with a brief discussion of the historical background of case- based instruction and then discuss the use of case methodologies within various educational contexts. Connections are then made to its use in general ethics instruction, as well as specifically engineering ethics instruction. Finally, we conclude the paper with a call for rigorous education research to compare the various methods of ethics instruction, including case-based instruction, and evaluate which methods are truly the most effective.

Case-Based Instruction

Christopher Columbus Langdell, who became the dean of Harvard Law School in 1870, has been credited with the creation of the “case method” approach 1,2. He believed that the best way to study law is by examining actual legal situations (cases) and “that understanding, in turn, was best developed via induction from a review of those appellate court decisions in which the principles first took tangible form”3. Christopher Langdell advocated that lawyers, like scientists, work with few core principles and theories; and the use of case method in legal education would help teach law as a science 1,3. It was indicated that such use of cases would prepare students for the real world of practice. Case method was seen initially as a compromise between the two existing methods of training lawyers - apprenticeship in a private law firm or learning through the lecture method. However, the case method did not turn out to be a compromise; instead it became a new way of teaching legal education 2. The use of case-based instruction has also been used within other professional fields as a means of educating or training professionals where the domain is complex and ill-structured, such as in medical and business education2.

Previous research in other fields such as, biology education has shown that using case-based instruction increases student understanding of ethical issues and helps development of moral reasoning skills 4,5. For example, Lundeberg, Mogen, Bergland, Klyczek, Johnson, and MacDonald 6 examined whether using case studies increases students’ awareness about the ethics associated with the particular case. The authors found that using case studies significantly increased students’ awareness of ethical issues as compared to students who did not use cases.

As ethics education has moved from didactic instruction to more learner-centered methodologies, new and innovative techniques are being used to teach students how to address ethical dilemmas7. One such method has been the use of case studies to teach ethics in engineering. Case-based instruction has been successfully used within various professional fields such as medicine and business as a way to teach ethical issues. Lundeberg5 stated, “cases provide a situational context for students to connect ethical questions with theoretical concepts.”


Matthew W. Ohland

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