PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Problem Based Learning at the Intersection of Philosophy and Technology

There are real challenges involved in teaching at the intersection between philosophical issues and engineering and technology. Not least is that an engineering ethics class is likely to be composed exclusively of engineering students with no prior experience in philosophy.

A very common way of teaching new material in applied ethics courses, as in many disciplines, is the “case-study method.” In this practice students do reading, and the instructor gives lectures, on several normative theories. Then, cases are introduced for students to apply the new material in “real-life” situations, like historical engineering disasters. The motivation behind this approach is that students learn better and have better transfer when they can apply what they learn in new contexts.

The drawbacks of this type of teaching, however, are well-known. Students who are introduced to new material in a neutral or non-existent context are often unmotivated to learn. Additionally, it is difficult for students to know where to focus their attention in the first part of the learning, which makes application more difficult afterward.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is the pedagogical approach that reverses this way of teaching new material; the learning is driven by the problem the student needs to solve, providing an inherent motivation for learning. In the basic PBL cycle students are given the problems first, and are encouraged to struggle through the initial phase of determining a) what they know, b) what else they need to know, and c) how they are going to learn it.

Another aspect of PBL is that students are working in teams to tackle the problem. The teams research the problem and possible solutions, share them with the class, and repeat until the problem is solved or resolved. Teams are encouraged to use a “divide and conquer” strategy, and have individual team members teach the rest of the team what they have learned.

The key to PBL is, of course, the problems and accompanying assignments. The problems must be pitched at the appropriate level, and well-designed to foster the learning of the desired outcomes. Additionally, the associated assignments must genuinely target the learning of these outcomes, but also be manageable for the students. This takes a lot of time on the part of the instructor before the semester starts, but, if done right, the workload during the semester is considerably less for the instructor.

PBL has been common pedagogical practice in medical and nursing schools for decades, and recently it has been used widely in science education at both the K-12 and University levels. Even more recently, other disciplines have been getting in the game as well. There are numerous websites dedicated to examples of problems for various disciplines, but there is precious little to be found on good problems for philosophy courses.

In this poster, I would like to provide an example of using PBL to teach engineering ethics, as well as to share lessons learned and some best practices.

Author Information:

Maralee Harrell    
Carnegie Mellon University


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