Exploring Purpose, Character and Ethics in Engineering

December 4, 2019

A new grant from the Kern Family Foundation draws Duke Engineering together with the Divinity School and Kenan Institute for Ethics to integrate purpose, character and ethics into the undergraduate experience

A large brick building with the sun shining through a glass walkway and a yellow tree

Duke Engineering is working to integrate crucial but often overlooked pieces of a holistic engineering education into its undergraduate experience

As the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University continues to evolve its undergraduate curriculum, the school is working to integrate crucial but often overlooked pieces of a holistic engineering education. With a new grant from The Kern Family Foundation’s Entrepreneurial Engineering Program, Duke Engineering will work with Duke colleagues and external professionals to create a framework for focusing on character values throughout the undergraduate experience.

“Today’s engineering students want to see how engineering impacts people's lives and makes the world a better place,” said George Truskey, senior associate dean of the Pratt School of Engineering and the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “At the same time, we’ve witnessed serious ethical lapses by major corporations in recent years. We feel that it is very important to infuse character values throughout our programs and to encourage students to think about what ethical issues new technologies may pose before they even come out.”

The grant, titled “Purposefully Duke: Reimagining Engineering Education for Purpose, Character and Ethics,” draws Duke Engineering together with the Duke Divinity School and Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics. The grant will also bring in experts from outside the university to create a working group of faculty and staff to develop an approach for discussing character-based ethics in a manner that is easily integrated into the current student experience.

“The Purposefully Duke initiative is designed to build a ‘muscle for reflection’ amongst our students and help them frame success in a way that leads to a life of purpose, meaning and ethics⁠—a fulfilling life where professional success is not the end goal of college, but one ingredient in a larger journey of personal growth.  We are grateful to the Kern Foundation, and to our Duke colleagues in the Divinity School, the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Provost’s office, for their support in this important embrace of a higher responsibility that all of us share in higher education.”

Ravi Bellamkonda
Vinik Dean of Engineering

The end goal is to create a proposal that develops and implements curricular, co-curricular and mentoring programs that explore and reinforce issues of character, purpose and ethics in engineering. Once completed, the leaders plan to submit a larger proposal to implement the new findings and ideas by Fall 2020.

The Kern Family Foundation was established in 1998 to empower the rising generation of Americans to build flourishing lives anchored in strong character, inspired by quality education, driven by an entrepreneurial mindset, and guided by the desire to create value for others. Earlier this year, Duke Engineering joined the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), which is a national partnership of engineering faculty focused on developing and promoting innovation in engineering education for the good of society. While the Kern Foundation wants to keep the focus of KEEN on fostering an entrepreneurial mindset in students, the budding program dovetails nicely into their broader goal of adding meaning and purpose to students’ educations and careers.

While planning is still in the early stages, Truskey says he envisions tapping into Duke Engineering’s extensive alumni network and other professionals in the field to recount their experiences and how they dealt with challenging situations. That way students can see that ethical dilemmas are real issues dealt with by real professionals on a regular basis, not just things that come up in the news from time to time.

“We need to find ways to engage students that allow them to see the complexity of the problems that can come up,” said Truskey. “If you give a student a case study of a serious ethical flaw, they’re going to immediately figure out what the right thing to do is. The challenge is to put them into a situation where there are gray areas so that they can see all the pressures and tensions that conflict with each other. Then it becomes more realistic and more challenging for them to think the problem through.”

“This grant addresses issues of central importance to engineering, higher education, and broader issues in people’s lives and the world of reinvigorating our vocations with character, purpose and ethical commitment,” said Gregory Jones, dean of the Duke Divinity School.

“We’re excited to collaborate with Pratt and the Divinity School on this important work of reimagining engineering education to make questions of purpose and meaning core learning outcomes,” added Suzanne Shanahan, dean of the Kenan Institute for Ethics.