In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about!

Empowering Future Engineers with Ethical Thinking

Monday, January 11, 2021

Author: Tom H. Byers and Tina L. Seelig

Now more than ever it is critically important for engineering graduates to be prepared to evaluate the consequences of the technologies they invent and scale.

In the past the impacts of new technologies—from nuclear power to genetic engineering—emerged over decades, and government regulations were able to gradually shape how the technologies evolved. Today, the time between concept and commercial application is compressed into a few years, or even months. Autonomous cars cruise down the road, drones hover above houses, and lab-grown meat may soon find its way into supermarkets. There is little time to carefully evaluate the potential impact of these innovations on our communities and the planet.

The benefits of speed of innovation have come with a hefty price. A number of well-known firms have stumbled because of behaviors that many consider unethical. Their meteoric growth resulted in decisions that were frequently questionable, and sometimes illegal.

In response, there is a growing effort among educators to ensure that future generations of engineers and entrepreneurs are equipped with the ethical skills and mindset required to understand the potential impacts of their inventions and make principled decisions.

Engineering educators need to seize this moment. Ethical thinking must be at the core of 21st century innovation, and ethics should be presented not as a system of barriers and constraints but rather as a series of frameworks and tools to be deployed throughout the innovation process.

Based on our experience at Stanford University teaching high-tech entrepreneurship and on our work with educators around the world, we have learned that ethics should not be bolted onto engineering and entrepreneurship education as an afterthought, but should be baked into the curriculum.

Ethical thinking uses many of the same critical thinking and creative problem-solving approaches leveraged in all other areas of engineering and entrepreneurship. Below are several approaches that can effectively prepare engineering students with the tools and mindset needed to consider the impacts of their future innovations.

Create New Courses Focused on Responsible Technology Development

Engineering students are eager to learn how to avoid the pitfalls they read about in the news. Courses devoted to exploring these issues can create meaningful change.

At Stanford University, students are lining up to take courses such as “Principled Entrepreneurial Decisions,” which provides weekly, custom-designed case studies that focus on decision making in high-growth companies. Students are challenged to consider the principles that executives used as they dealt with the complexities of bringing new technologies to market, such as how the Cloudflare CEO balanced a principle of total content neutrality with an urge to stop providing web security services to a hate speech publisher.

In addition, “Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy,” a collaboration among faculty in computer science, political science, and philosophy, requires students to complete technical assignments, policy memos, and philosophy papers. And a course titled “Ethics in Bioengineering,” cotaught by a scientist and a bioethicist, prepares students to address the expanding number of ethical questions that arise in the life sciences. These courses are offered by Stanford’s Computer Science and Bioengineering Departments, respectively.

Such courses attract hundreds of students who know that they will face myriad ethical challenges around the technologies they develop, from virtual reality to facial recognition software and designer babies.

Embed Ethics in Traditional Engineering Courses

In addition to separate courses, ethics conversations and case studies can be deployed in more traditional engineering courses. In our experience, students appreciate the chance to dive into ethical issues in courses on innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership, as well as in technical courses in fields such as mechanical and environmental engineering.

In a Stanford engineering course called “Inventing the Future,” students debate the potential utopian and dystopian consequences of various frontier technologies. Although we don’t use the word “ethics” when teeing up the debates, the students naturally unpack the ethical implications of each invention, from personal robots to AI-enhanced surveillance in cities. The industry experts who visit the class to give feedback on student presentations often admit that the students uncovered positive and negative consequences of their own technology that they had not considered.

Educators can draw from a rich and growing set of available case studies. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, for example, has created engineering-specific case studies based on interviews with engineers in Silicon Valley and beyond. And the NAE’s Online Ethics Center offers cases that take an experiential approach to ethics education for engineers.

Through cases and ethics-focused conversations, educators can ensure that all engineering and entrepreneurship students gain exposure to ethical frameworks and vital opportunities to practice ethical decision making.

Ethics should not be bolted onto engineering and entrepreneurship education as an afterthought, but should be baked into the curriculum.

Elevate Research into Ethics-Driven Technology Development

There is growing interest among scholars in studying the strategic advantages of responsible technology development.

A recent Academy of Management workshop (“Responsible and Ethical Innovation,” July 2020) highlighted the expanding scope of this research. Studies have explored the use of measurement scales to assess responsible innovation (Zhang et al. 2019), the design of values-based product management (Brusoni and Vaccaro 2017), how executive compensation can be linked to corporate social responsibility (Flammer et al. 2019), and evidence that gender-diverse R&D teams produce more radical innovation (Díaz-García et al. 2013).

Presenting research on ethics and innovation in the context of engineering courses has the potential to fundamentally reshape how engineers and entrepreneurs define their mission, evaluate their metrics for success, build their teams, and prioritize the social impacts of innovation.


Engineers are problem solvers. And ethical thinking is a critical tool in their toolbox as they play a central role in shaping solutions to the world’s major problems, from climate change and social inequities to public health, job creation, and global food security.

As educators, we must ensure that engineering students are equipped with the skills needed to evaluate the impact of the innovations they bring to life. This can be done by creating engineering courses focused on responsible technology development, infusing ethics-focused case studies and discussions into traditional engineering curriculum, and elevating research on ethics and innovation.

As Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Now is the time to prepare engineering students with ethical tools that will enable them to invent the future with the care that future generations deserve.


Brusoni S, Vaccaro A. 2017. Ethics, technology and organizational innovation. Journal of Business Ethics 143:223–26.

Díaz-García C, González-Moreno A, Sáez-Martínez FJ. 2013. Gender diversity within R&D teams: Its impact on radical-ness of innovation. Journal of Innovation: Organization and Management 15(2):149–60.

Flammer C, Hong B, Minor D. 2019. Corporate governance and the rise of integrating corporate social responsibility criteria in executive compensation: Effectiveness and implications for firm outcomes. Strategic Management Journal 40(7):1097–122.

Zhang SX, Choudhury A, He L. 2019. Responsible innovation: The development and validation of a scale. Academy of Management Proceedings 2019(1).


About the Author:Tom Byers is a professor and Tina Seelig is a professor of the practice, both in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University School of Engineering. As faculty directors of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, they were recipients of the NAE’s 2009 Gordon Prize.