Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 261–276 | Cite as

Understanding Ill-Structured Engineering Ethics Problems Through a Collaborative Learning and Argument Visualization Approach

  • Michael Hoffmann
  • Jason BorensteinEmail author
Original Paper


As a committee of the National Academy of Engineering recognized, ethics education should foster the ability of students to analyze complex decision situations and ill-structured problems. Building on the NAE’s insights, we report about an innovative teaching approach that has two main features: first, it places the emphasis on deliberation and on self-directed, problem-based learning in small groups of students; and second, it focuses on understanding ill-structured problems. The first innovation is motivated by an abundance of scholarly research that supports the value of deliberative learning practices. The second results from a critique of the traditional case-study approach in engineering ethics. A key problem with standard cases is that they are usually described in such a fashion that renders the ethical problem as being too obvious and simplistic. The practitioner, by contrast, may face problems that are ill-structured. In the collaborative learning environment described here, groups of students use interactive and web-based argument visualization software called “AGORA-net: Participate – Deliberate!”. The function of the software is to structure communication and problem solving in small groups. Students are confronted with the task of identifying possible stakeholder positions and reconstructing their legitimacy by constructing justifications for these positions in the form of graphically represented argument maps. The argument maps are then presented in class so that these stakeholder positions and their respective justifications become visible and can be brought into a reasoned dialogue. Argument mapping provides an opportunity for students to collaborate in teams and to develop critical thinking and argumentation skills.


Argument mapping Collaborative learning Engineering ethics Problem-based learning 



The research and software development described in this article has been supported by a Grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, Grant P116S100006. We want to thank Erik Robbins, Romeo Cabanban, Darren Samuel Harris, Sallie Lu, Rajitha Siyasena, Kim-Quyen Thi Tran, Robert DePietro, and Thomas Pilliod for allowing us to reproduce excerpts from the argument maps they produced for their class projects.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public PolicyGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Graduate Research Ethics ProgramsAtlantaUSA

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