Exploring Mental Models of Ethics and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Engineering

Friday, May 19, 10:30 am – Noon


Workshop Objective

The aim of this workshop is to (1) provide an overview of mental models in engineering ethics education and (2) use the mental models framing to engage attendees in a conversation around how ethics and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) connect in engineering. Attendees will leave the session with an understanding of mental models, engineering faculty mental models in engineering ethics education, and greater clarity regarding one’s own way of connecting ethics and DEI in engineering.

Workshop Overview

This 90-minute workshop will include four primary parts: (1) an introduction to mental models, (2) synthesis of mental models in engineering ethics education, (3) activities aimed to elicit participants’ mental models of ethics, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in engineering, and (4) preliminary results from a study on academic faculty members’ and engineering practitioners’ mental models regarding connections between ethics and DEI in engineering.

2.1 Overview of Mental Models

Mental models can mean many things depending on the context. Striking a balance between neurophysiology and colloquial terminology, in this work we operationalize mental models as the internal representations that someone has of the state, form, function, and purpose of a system. The theory of mental models suggests then that people use these mental models to describe, explain, and predict aspects of those represented systems.

2.2 Mental Models of Engineering Ethics Education

In some of our preliminary work before engaging in this project, Katz characterized faculty members’ mental models of engineering ethics education. To organize that work, Katz focused on mental models of teaching ethics, mental models of learning ethics, and mental models of ethics definitions themselves. In this workshop we will present some of those findings as a way to contextualize how we approached the current project on mental models of the intersections of DEI and ethics.

2.3 Elicitation of Mental Models Regarding Ethics & DEI Connections in Engineering

In our current research study, which builds on the above, we are exploring how engineering faculty and engineering practitioners view ethics and DEI and how they connect ethics and DEI via the framing of mental models. In our research, as a part of semi-structured interviews, we employ model elicitation methods as a way to evoke how engineering faculty and engineering practitioners understand and connect these phenomena. The interviews themselves include (1) Positioning which prompts participants to begin exploring potential connections between ethics and DEI by talking about their experiences with the phenomena separately and then collectively; (2) Description which prompts participants to draw and then articulate the connection between variables, and (3) Discussion wherein participants examine ethics and DEI cases and conceptualizations separately. The workshop itself will include an interactive component that emulates this aspect of the grant study procedures, with a concerted focus on the “Description” portion of the interview (which includes a drawing activity).

2.4 Preliminary Findings

We aim to conduct 30 interviews with practitioners and 30 interviews with academics, or 60 interviews total. While results are highly preliminary, mental models reveal widespread variation in ways that individual practitioners and individual faculty members connect phenomenon. While most participants indicate moderate expertise in at least one of two domains (i.e., ethics or DEI), most participants express much uncertainty when trying to connect the phenomena. Nonetheless, upon reflection, most participants indicate there is “some overlap” between phenomenon, although the nature of the overlap may vary, and many practitioners express the view that other engineers would likely view ethics and DEI as disconnected. These findings support the need for more concerted dialogues around and the development of shared understandings regarding intersections between ethics and DEI in engineering.

How the Session Aligns with the Conference Theme

IEEE ETHICS-2023 invites sharing perspectives between global community of technology and ethics practitioners and theoreticians from industry, academia, government, and civil society. In our research, we have primarily focused on perspectives between industry and academia, and we are excited to broaden the focus beyond our double-helix to the quintuple level by engaging perspectives across these sectors.


Isil Anakok is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Justin L Hess is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. His research focuses on empathic and ethical formation in engineering education.

Dr. Andrew Katz is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. His research focuses on decision-making and ethics education.

Sowmya Panuganti is a graduate research assistant in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University.