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An Ethics Transfer Case Assessment Tool for
Measuring Ethical Reasoning Abilities of Engineering
Students Using Reflexive Principlism Approach
Justin L. Hess1*, Jonathan Beever2+, Andrew Iliadis2,3*, Lorraine G. Kisselburgh3*, Carla B. Zoltowski4*, Matthew J. M. Krane5*,
& Andrew O. Brightman6*
Engineering Education, Philosophy, Communication, 4EPICS, 5Materials Engineering, 6Biomedical Engineering
*Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA, +Penn State University, State College, PA, USA
Abstract— This work in progress paper presents initial results
on the development and testing of a novel assessment tool
utilizing an ethics transfer case methodology targeted at
measuring the ethical reasoning ability of engineering students
employing reflexive principlism. This work evaluates the
reliability and transferability of a rubric-based assessment of
students’ responses to a transfer case study employed at Purdue University in the Spring of 2014. The scoring rubric was
developed to assess students’ ability to apply the reasoning
components of reflexive principlism including: (a) identification,
(b) specification, (c) empathic perspective-taking, (d)
justification, and (e) reflectivity. To determine reliability of the
scoring rubric, two raters independently scored 19 students’ precourse responses through 3 iterations of the rubric’s development, until 85% overall inter-rater agreement was
reached. Two additional scorers, normed on the coding
framework, then provided feedback on wording and applied the
rubric to the same 19 student responses. Initial results from this
analysis and discussion of the assessment tool are presented.
Keywords— engineering ethics; reflexive principlism; transfer
case; principles; ethical reasoning assessment; perspective taking
Professional codes are helpful for resolving many ethical
dilemmas, but they are insufficient when encountering novel
ethical issues which have no precedent. As Flanagan and Clark
wrote, “Regulations are designed to remedy old problems not anticipate new ones” (p. 493) [1]. Due to the rapid emergence of new technologies the chance of encountering a novel ethical
dilemma within engineering practice is today greater than ever
before. Following such encounters, new codes may emerge to
address such issues, but this slow, ex post facto code
development offers little assistance for the engineer to reason
through novel issues and reach morally acceptable and socially
responsible solutions when faced with a dilemma for which
there is no existing code. A coherent framework for ethical
reasoning that engineers may use when faced with novel
ethical dilemmas has not yet been adopted within engineering
ethics education. Furthermore, assessment of such framework
is also needed if engineering educators are to determine their
pedagogical effectiveness.
A. Ethics Transfer Case Methodology
We propose that use of an ethics transfer case, a case study
external to the context of the course, may be an effective
means of assessing development of ethical reasoning in the
978-1-4799-3922-0/14/$31.00 ©2014 IEEE
context of engineering ethics education. Transfer of knowledge
is the concept that students will take what they learn from
within the course and implement it in some context outside of
the course [2]. Thiel and others suggested, “Cases have been
useful in promoting transfer in an ethics context because they
provide models for addressing ethical problems faced in one’s work” (p. 268) [3]. The theory here is that cases offer students
an opportunity to work through real ethical issues which may
be relevant to their future work.
Largely lacking within engineering ethics education are
clear and effective methods of assessing transfer of learning
regarding ethical reasoning processes. To address this need we
designed an ethics transfer case that students complete before
and after an engineering ethics course. The intent of
developing this new assessment tool is twofold: first, we want
to determine whether students transfer the knowledge gained
during the course to a context outside of the course; second, by
presenting the ethics transfer case pre- and post- course, we
want to assess whether students show significant change in
their ability to apply this ethical reasoning methodology to an
engineering moral dilemma.
In this ethics transfer case study, students independently
work through a real-world ethical dilemma, which is a case not
taught or referred to during the course. The case study we
designed and implemented deals with the engineering design
and distribution of wood stoves in light of more stringent
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations (see
Appendix A). Students are asked to take the perspective of an
engineer who works for a top-wood stove manufacturer and
who is also a consultant for the EPA, and then reason through
the case to determine the most ethical course of action.
Students are asked to create a visualization and a written
description of their reasoning process.
Transfer of knowledge can be described as near, when
knowledge is transferred to a similar context, or far, when
knowledge is transferred to a dissimilar context [2]. The
context of the transfer case methodology can also be described
as near or far based upon its temporal and spatial distance from
the learning activity [2]. Because students will complete this
activity at the end of the course, immediately following
learning activities, this transfer activity is considered near and
therefore only a preliminary indicator of the potential transfer
of reflexive principlism into the real world.
2014 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
B. Reflexive Principlism as an Ethical Reasoning Approach
Reflexive principlism is a version of a method for ethical
reasoning developed in the context of biomedical ethics, but
particularly relevant to the context of engineering, that
specifies and balances common normative principles in the
context of a particular case [4; 5]. Reasoning components of
reflexive principlism include (1) identification of ethical
principles, (2) specification of those principles within the
context of a given case (i.e. ethical dilemma), (3) considering
and evaluating the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, (4)
finding balance and coherence among those principles to help
resolve that dilemma, and (5) reflective analysis of the
suitability of a proposed solution. Reflexive principlism
considers the repetition of the reasoning process through
multiple cases to be essential for developing ethical reasoning.
C. Research Purpose
This work in progress paper presents initial results on the
development and testing of a new assessment tool designed to
measure the ability of engineering students to employ the
reflexive principlism ethical reasoning framework. The
primary purpose of this study was to develop a valid and
reliable rubric that may be used to assess students’ usage of reflexive principlism in response to an engineering ethics case
study. Additionally, our goal is to use this rubric to examine
how well students apply reflexive principlism to an ethical
problem after participating in our designed ethics course [5].
Nineteen graduate students were participants of study,
including a broad range of ethnicities and engineering
disciplines. Students were required to participate in a 1-credit
hour ethics course to meet curriculum requirements.
Students were presented with the case study (described in
Appendix A) before beginning any other course activities, and
asked to describe and make a diagram of their thinking and
decision-making processes as they developed their response to
the case. Students were also asked to identify information
needed to improve and support their decision. Students were
expected to spend roughly 60 minutes on the activity, but were
allowed to complete the activity at their own pace. The final
response was uploaded through an online survey tool
(Qualtrics). Students’ pre-course responses were evaluated to
refine the instrument while seeking inter-rater reliability. These
results are presented in the following sections. We do not
present findings from the post-course responses in this paper.
A. Construct Validity
The scoring rubric is intended to measure the ability and
tendency to apply reflexive principlism. To achieve construct
validity, that is, assuring that the scoring rubric measures what
we believe it measures [6], our team of experts from
Philosophy, Engineering Education, and Biomedical
Engineering worked to develop a rubric based on the five
reasoning components of reflexive principlism: identification,
specification and balancing, empathic perspective-taking,
justification and coherence, and reflectivity. Each expert from
our research team independently designed the rubric items
nearest their area of expertise. Afterwards, this group of
experts met and discussed any possible interpretative
difficulties along individual items developed by the others.
After minor changes in the rubric format, item descriptions,
and the scoring system, the rubric was disseminated to the
larger research team, which included professors from the
Schools of Materials Engineering and Communication and
partners in the biomedical device industry. This group provided
feedback on the overall quality of the developed measures,
made suggestions on the scope and explicitness of specific
items, and encouraged developers to articulate their rubric
items in concise language.
B. Instrument Reliability
In order to determine reliability of the scoring rubric
measures, the research team worked through several iterations.
After each iteration, the level of agreement between the scorers
was calculated by summing the total points possible less the
magnitude of differences between scorers divided by the total
points possible, times 100%. [7]. In the first three iterations,
two scorers applied the rubric to the 19 pre-course submissions
and calculated their level of reliability following each iteration
until reaching 85% agreement. Scorer 1 was a doctoral
candidate in the School of Engineering Education with a B.S.
in Civil Engineering and Philosophy minor. Scorer 2 was a
postdoctoral researcher in ethics with a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
The scorers coded each survey individually and then compared
their level of agreement on each item, category, and overall.
1) Iteration 1: In the first iteration, the rubric contained 25
items in 5 categories. The raters’ agreement level was very low, where 8 items had a level of agreement in the 50-70%
range, 13 in the 70-80% range, and only 2 items were greater
than 80%. To address the largest discrepancies, the raters
discussed the responses with the lowest level of agreement. A
third member of the research team met with the raters during
this discussion to provide recommendations for interpreting
responses. Next, the raters attempted to reconcile any divergent
interpretations of the rubric items where the agreement rate
was below 70%.
2) Iteration 2: In the next iteration, the raters individually
recoded the responses. At the end of this phase, the level of
agreement between the two raters was 80.3%. While this level
is acceptable, it is not sufficient as several codes were below
70%. Therefore, during this phase the coders presented their
results to the entire research team, who provided
recommendations for changes to the items showing the lowest
levels of agreement.
3) Iteration 3: In the next iteration, the raters individually
re-coded the responses, and removed the 3 lowest-scoring
items, yielding 85% agreement between raters. Table 1 shows
the inter-rater reliability for each category. Tables 2-6 show the
items corresponding to each reasoning category.
4) Iteration 4: To determine if the scoring rubric could be
implemented by others, the scorers normed two additional
scorers using an example case study where their initial scores
disagreed on only 1 of the 25 items. During this 2-hour session,
the groups of scorers reviewed several of the codes from
Iteration 3 whose level of agreement was below 80%. To
This work was made possible by grants from the National Science Foundation
(1237868) and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (DGE1333468). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations
expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily
in Education Conference
reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. 2014 IEEE Frontiers2735
increase validity, wording on several codes was revised and
scores on a few codes were parsed. Two codes were removed
as they were determined to be redundant. Scorer 3 was a
professor of Biomedical Engineering and Scorer 4 was a
doctoral student in Philosophy and Communication. At the
conclusion of these iterations, 24 codes in 5 categories were
retained. Table 1 shows the results from this final iteration.
Table 1: Iteration 3 and 4 Inter-Rater Reliability by Category
Category Name
Perspective Taking
*Inter-rater reliability of iteration 3 from original 2 scorers
**Inter-rater reliability of iteration 4 from 2 normed scorers
Here we present the final rubric design, discussing each
category along with the specific items used to measure the
reflexive principlism components. In general, responses could
be scored from 0-3, but a few codes were binary, scoring 0 or
1, and a few items ranged to 4 points. The highest score
attainable on the activity using the finalized rubric was 53
A. Identification
To reason through an ethics case, at a minimum, one must
successfully identify the implications of four principles upon
which reflexive principlism is based: (a) beneficence, (b) nonmaleficence, (c) justice, and (d) respect for autonomy. These
four principles are intended to provide a broad and binding
normative framework to the process of ethical decisionmaking. Table 2 presents the rubric items pertaining to
identification of principles.
Table 2: Rubric items corresponding to Identification
(1 point)
(1 point)
(1 point)
(1 point)
Conflicts of
(3 points)
Central conflict
(3 points)
Students are able to explicitly identify 2 or more
components of respect for autonomy (e.g. supporting
goals, cultures, upholding values, freedom of decisionmaking, valuing views)
Students are able to explicitly identify 2 or more
components of beneficence (e.g. making money, right
thing, doing good)
Students are able to explicitly identify 2 or more
components of justice (e.g. fairness, equality, what is
fair, due, or owed)
Students are able to explicitly identify 2 or more
components of non-maleficence (e.g. safety, protection
of environment, health, avoiding harms)
Does the response identify a central value conflict and
how that influences their decision process?
Does the response identify a central value conflict and
how that influences their decision process?
B. Specification and Balancing
According to Beauchamp and Childress, following
Richardson [8], specification of principles is “a process of reducing the indeterminate character of abstract norms and
generating more specific, action-guiding content” [9]. When
sufficiently specified in the context of a particular case, the
principles are determinate enough that it is clear where, when,
why, how, by what means, and to whom they apply [8].
Balancing principles is the process by which specified
principles are brought into coherence with one another and
external facts and values at stake in the case. While all four
principles can be relevantly applied, one or another might play
a more central role in terms of framing and relieving ethical
tension. Table 3 presents the rubric items corresponding to
specification and balancing of the principles.
Table 3: Rubric items corresponding to Specification
Core value(s)
(4 points)
Level and
accuracy of
(3 points)
Rationale for
(3 points)
Is at least 1 value specified and prioritized in terms of the
four principles as critical to the decision? (e.g.
minimizing non-maleficence by preventing air pollution)
Specification is highly detailed, including a consideration
of each of the 4 principles within the case constraints
(e.g. explicitly defines autonomy given case constraints
and describes how it differs from some other possible
Student recognizes balancing of all 4 principles is
necessary and makes a reasonable assessment of that
prioritization based on the details of the case and level of
C. Empathic Perspective-Taking
Throughout the reflexive principlism process, one must
actively consider the potential stakeholders, especially those
with the highest stakes. Cognitively, empathetic relating is
accomplished through imaginative perspective-taking, where
the engineer either (a) imagines themselves in the other’s position or (b) imagines how the other experiences or sees the
situation. The rubric items along this category are in Table 4.
Table 4: Rubric items corresponding to Perspective-Taking
Breadth (3 points)
Most Impacted
(1 point)
Users’ Needs
(3 points)
(1 point)
(1 point)
Moral framework
(1 point)
(1 point)
Seeking feedback
(1 point)
Several stakeholders identified
Does the student specify which stakeholder(s) have
the most at stake?
3 or more external stakeholders' needs used to
inform decision
Does the student reason back and forth between
external stakeholder values and their own?
Does the student consider the viewpoint of other
stakeholders as equal to their own (weighs others
fairly against own)?
Are 2 or more principles used explicitly as a basis to
reason from other stakeholders' perspectives? (e.g.
beneficence appears to be most important for x
because of y).
Does the student take into account that different
stakeholders will have different values or weigh
principles differently? (identifying at least one
alternative value perspective)
Does the response indicate a need for direct
feedback from any external stakeholders identified
as important to the decision?
D. Justification and Coherence
In order to come to a decision, one must establish
coherence among the four principles, other relevant moral
beliefs, facts of the matter, and other relevant epistemic
commitments held by stakeholders [9]. This building of
coherence is done reflectively; that is, through a dynamic
process of testing against the well-established moral beliefs the
principles denote. Table 5 shows the rubric items pertaining to
2014 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
Table 5: Rubric items corresponding to Justification
Decision Made
(4 points)
(3 points)
Range of
(3 points)
Was there an explicit decision proposed?
There is evaluation of the relationship among multiple
stakeholders, principles, and relevant codes/regulations
From the decision, several long- and short- term ethical
implications or thought-experiments considered.
E. Reflectivity
Reflectivity, the process of conscious deliberation on
decisions and reasons, is essential to ethical decision making
via reflexive principlism. Shifting epistemic and ethical
conditions, from new scientific knowledge or engineering
design options to social, economic, or personal constraints,
demand that the decision-maker engage in a constant process
of reflection that parallels the design process familiar to
engineers. Over time and by habituation, the conscious process
of reflection can become internalized and reflexive; yet, novel
cases and conditions constantly push back against a merely
reflexive process. Table 6 shows the rubric items pertaining to
these ideas.
Table 6: Rubric items corresponding to Reflectivity
Feedback Loops
(4 points)
Plans for
(3 points)
Inclusion of
(2 points)
Inclusion of
(2 points)
The visual or written response clearly indicates the final
solution will feedback into earlier considerations and
have to be reevaluated through the proposed framework
The response suggests several decisions or
considerations will need to be reevaluated based on
gathering additional information
Strengths assessed from 2 or more external stakeholders'
Weaknesses assessed from 2 or more external
stakeholders' perspectives
We have developed a new assessment tool for measuring
the ethical reasoning abilities of students, specifically their
ability to apply reflexive principlism to an ethics transfer case.
This study has focused on the development of a valid and
reliable rubric to evaluate students’ responses. The analysis focused on the reliability between raters who iteratively
developed and applied the rubric to students’ pre-course
responses in an engineering ethics course. The scoring
reliability of the raters involved in the initial developmental
phase improved with each iteration, and the final rubric yielded
inter-rater reliability levels of 95% or higher across 5
dimensions: Justification, Identification, Perspective-taking,
Specification, and Reflectivity. This demonstrates the scoring
rubric is reliable and has potential for expanded utilization in
other courses.
The limitations of this study are the small number of test
cases and the specificity of the tool toward a particular
framework of ethical reasoning (reflexive principlism). The
applicability of this tool and of the ethics transfer case
methodology in other frameworks of ethical reasoning, and in
non-engineering STEM discipline contexts is still to be
determined. This work in progress report will be expanded in
future studies with the completion of the study using the new
assessment tool to evaluate students’ post-course responses
along with changes in students’ ethical reasoning abilities. We anticipate this tool will fill a gap in the assessment of ethical
reasoning for ethics educators across all engineering disciplines
and invite testing and validation within other disciplines.
Heating with wood is a time-honored and practical tradition
in forested areas and has been making a comeback in Maine. A
greater percentage of homes in Maine use wood as their
primary heat source – 14 percent – than any state other than
Vermont. An estimated 50 percent of Maine homes also use
wood as a supplemental heat source. The trend is helpful for
cutting expensive oil bills, but not for increasing air quality.
Typical wood stoves emit more of the pollution that aggravates
asthma and other respiratory conditions than the oil and gas
heating systems they are meant to supplement or replace.
Twenty-six years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) set emission standards for wood heaters at 7.5
grams per hour. Some states have already set stricter standards,
such as Washington’s 4.5 grams per hour. Several states, not
including Maine, have filed a notice to sue the EPA for failing
to revise its outdated standards for residential wood heat. As a
result, the EPA has proposed a new standard for 2019; 1.3
grams per hour. This is even lower than the level achieved by
one of the top stove designers in Maine who has just completed
an extensive redesign for efficiency and air quality on a new
wood stove, which still emitted 2.3 grams per hour.
There are at least 7 million older-technology stoves
currently being used throughout the United States. This past
year, fewer than 74,000 new units were sold across the country.
A well-built wood stove lasts for generations, so even if the
EPA does decide to double down on the regulations, switching
out all the old-style stoves with cleaner models will take some
time. In addition, one wood stove manufacturer estimated that
it will cost nearly $1 million to re-engineer its stoves to meet
the 2019 standards and could drive up the cost of a stove by
25%. Another option proposed to the EPA by this wood stove
manufacturer representative is to implement a wood stove
change-out program. During the summer of 2013, some wood
stove dealers offered $300 credits to people who exchanged
their old stove for a new one, which sells for between $1,000
and $3,000. These buyers also gained a $300 federal rebate.
This federal rebate is expired as of 2014, although some
rebates are still offered at the state level, such as the $250
Efficiency Maine rebate.
Both engineers and policy-makers face complex ethical
decisions in this case. Imagine that you are the lead engineer
with one of the top wood-stove manufacturers in the State of
Maine and a consultant with the EPA. How would you reason
through advising your company on the most ethical course of
action? For more information on this case visit:
Task: Create a diagram or flowchart of your thought
process that led to and supports your conclusion. (1) Along
with your visualization, describe each of the steps you used to
come to your decision. (2) Provide a brief explanation of why
you used these steps to make your decision. (3) Would you
need any other information to improve your decision? If so,
what is it and how would you obtain it? (4) Please identify any
external sources that you used to inform and support your
decision and how you obtained these materials.
2014 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference
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2014 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference