Noelle Brown

How can we teach computer science students about the ethical implications of technology? PhD student Noelle Brown is synthesizing the state of the field regarding this issue and presented her work at Stanford’s Embedded Ethics conference held on March 7, 2023 at Stanford University. This invitation-only conference shared strategies and research on teaching ethics and responsible computing within undergraduate computer science courses. Brown attended the conference with her advisor, professor Eliane Wiese

“Noelle was the only student to present. It’s great to see her as an emerging leader in our field.”

– Prof. Elian Wiese

Brown and Wiese’s broader research explores how to teach ethics to computer science students in a way that deepens technical rigor. They want to make it easier for computer science faculty to create instruction and assignments that weave ethics across the computer science curriculum. Rather than designing one-off assignments, Brown and Wiese aim to create an instructional design process that any computer science instructor can follow to make materials suited to their courses. 

Brown presented a work-in-progress lightning talk, in which she discussed how researchers have reported on teaching ethics within computing over the past 40 years. Brown worked with her collaborator Benji Xie, an Embedded EthiCS Postdoc Fellow at Stanford, to read and analyze nearly 100 research papers on the topic. 

Wiese described the motivation behind this project: “This is a great time to reflect on the state of research on incorporating ethics into computer science education. Our community has called for more ethics in computer science, and we’re doing it. Now that we know it’s possible in many different formats, our field can start investigating more specific questions, such as what formats are most effective for what purposes.”

Brown’s talk offered insight into how the computer science field has historically embedded ethics within technical courses, providing calls to action based on her results. “Even though we have been talking about teaching ethics in computer science for decades and many people understand why it is important to teach students how to think about their responsibilities as programmers, there are no guidelines for how an instructor should achieve this objective. By systematically analyzing the existing literature, we found that many people are teaching ethics, but they are doing it in a lot of different ways. Synthesizing this information provides instructors and educators with more focused research directions, such as defining what they are teaching as ‘ethics’ and suggesting ways to overcome the associated challenges,” Brown said. 

The conference brought together academics from a variety of institutions who embed ethics within their technical courses. The event included panels and talks from experts on embedded ethics, discussing program approaches and goals, institutional buy-in, and instructional strategies. Attendees included a mix of academics from computer science and philosophy, emphasizing the importance of collaborations between these two disciplines. “The conference pulled together researchers and instructors from different institutions, fields, and perspectives, and fostered a healthy exchange of ideas,” Wiese shared. Some of the ideas explored at the conference include the importance of historical context for understanding algorithmic discrimination, the need for rigorous assessment of student learning, and shared resources for embedded ethics.

A recording of the conference is available online. Brown’s presentation can be found from 3:33:25 – 3:39:40.