Case Studies

Case studies (also called "case histories") are descriptions of real situations that provide a context for engineers and others to explore decision-making in the face of socio-technical issues, such as environmental, political, and ethical issues. Case studies typically involve complex issues where there is no single correct answer--a student analyzing a case study may be asked to select the "best" answer given the situation 1. A case study is not a demonstration of a valid or "best" decision or solution. On the contrary, unsuccessful or incomplete attempts at a solution are often included in the written account. 2

The process of analyzing a case study encourages several learning tasks:

  • Exploring the nature of a problem and circumstances that affect a decision or solution
  • Learning about others' viewpoints and how they may be taken into account
  • Learning about one's own viewpoint
    • Defining one's own priorities
    • Making one's own decisions to solve a problem
  • Predicting outcomes and consequences 1

Student Learning Outcomes in Ethics

Most engineering case studies available pertain to engineering ethics. After a two year study of education in ethics sponsored by the Hastings Center, an interdisciplinary group agreed on five main outcomes for student learning in ethics:

  • Sensitivity to ethical issues, sometimes called "developing a moral imagination," or the awareness of the needs of others and that there is an ethical point of view;
  • Recognition of ethical issues or the ability to see the ethical implications of specific situations and choices;
  • Ability to analyze and critically evaluate ethical dilemmas, including an understanding of competing values, and the ability to scrutinize options for resolution;
  • Ethical responsibility, or the ability to make a decision and take action;
  • Tolerance for ambiguity, or the recognition that there may be no single ideal solution to ethically problematic situations 2.

These outcomes would make an excellent list of attributes for designing a rubric for a case analysis.

Ideas for Case Study Assignments

To assign a case analysis, an instructor needs

  1. skill in analyzing a case (and the ability to model that process for students)
  2. skill in managing classroom discussion of a case
  3. a case study
  4. a specific assignment that will guide students' case analyses, and
  5. a rubric for scoring students' case analyses.

Below are ideas for each of these five aspects of teaching with case studies. Another viewpoint is to consider how not to teach a case study.

1. Skill in analyzing a case
For many engineering instructors, analyzing cases is unfamiliar. Examining completed case analyses could help develop case analysis skills. As an exercise for building skill in analyzing cases, use the generic guidelines for case analysis assignments (#4 below) to carefully review some completed case analyses. A few completed case analyses are available:

  • Five example analyses of an engineering case study
    • Case study part 1 [Unger, S. The BART case: ethics and the employed engineer. IEEE CSIT Newsletter. September 1973 Issue 4, p 6.]
    • Case study part 2 [Friedlander, G. The case of the three engineers vs. BART. IEEE Spectrum. October 1974, p. 69-76.]
    • Case study part 3 [Friedlander, G. Bigger Bugs in BART? IEEE Spectrum. March 1973. p32,35,37.]
  • Case study with an example analysis

2. Skill in managing classroom discussion of a case
Managing classroom discussion of a case study requires planning.

  • Suggestions for using engineering cases in the classroom
  • Guidelines for leading classroom discussion of case studies

3. Case studies
Case studies should be complex enough and realistic enough to be challenging, yet be manageable within the time frame. It is time-consuming to create case studies, but there are a large number of engineering case studies online.

Online Case Libraries

4. A specific assignment that will guide students' case analyses
There are several types of case study assignment:

Case analyses typically include answering questions such as:

  • What kinds of problems are inherent in the situation?
    • Describe the socio-technical situation sufficiently to enable listeners (or readers) to understand the situation faced by the central character in the case.
    • Identify and characterize the issue or conflict central to the situation. Identify the parties involved in the situation. Describe the origins, structure, and trajectory of the conflict.
    • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments made by each party.
  • How would these problems affect the outcomes of the situation?
    • Describe the possible actions that could have been taken by the central character in the case.
    • Describe, for each possible action, what the potential outcomes might be for each party involved.
    • Describe what action was actually taken and the outcomes for each party involved.
  • How would you solve these problems? Why?
    • Describe the action you would take if you were the central character in the case. Explain why.
  • What should the central character in the situation do? Why?
    • Describe the action you think that the central character in the case should take. Explain why.
  • What can be learned from this case?
    • Delineate the lessons about ethical (or other) issues in engineering that are illuminated by this case.

This list is adapted from two online case analysis assignments by McGinn from 3 & 4):

5. A rubric for scoring students' case analyses
Case studies help students explore decision-making in the face of issues. Thus, for an engineering ethics case study, the outcomes that can be assessed by scoring case analyses are a) sensitivity to ethical issues, b) recognition of ethical issues, c) the ability to analyze and critically evaluate ethical dilemmas, d) the ability to make an ethical decision and take action, and e) tolerance for ambiguity. Scoring rubrics for ethics case analyses should address these outcomes, not basic knowledge of the ethical standards of the profession. Professional standards can best be assessed by a traditional graded exam in which students must demonstrate, for example, which practices are ethically acceptable versus which are in violation of ethical standards given a hypothetical scenario 5.

Making Scoring/Grading Useful for Assessment

  • General principles for making scoring/grading useful for assessment (rubrics)
  • Example rubrics
    • For a written analysis of a case study in engineering
    • For a written analysis of a case study in general #1
    • For a written analysis of a case study in general #2
    • For a written and oral analysis of a case study by a group
    • For an oral analysis of a case study by a group
    • For a written analysis of a case study on ethics
    • For a written analysis of a case study on ethics
    • For a self-assessment of learning from a case study