Interdisciplinary Ethical Role-Playing

by Catharina Laporte

I am a cultural anthropologist. For the last two years, I have been immersed in developing and facilitating a class that specifically fulfills the ethics and professionalism component of the ABET (Accreditation Board of Engineering & Technology education) criterion.  Towards this end, I introduced the concept of role-playing in the class room — and it has taken off like wildfire!  I have never felt so invigorated about the application of anthropological thinking in the real world.  Why? … and what can an anthropologist teach an engineer?   

On the surface, anthropology and many of the STEM disciplines share professional and ethical values: do no harm (public welfare); follow the Code of Ethics of the discipline; respect fellow professionals; avoid conflicts of interest; avoid bribery and corruption etc. — but I feel the lessons and connection between the two lie deeper than that.  Ultimately, ethical and critical thinking require many of the basic tenants of all anthropology:  thinking holistically, the importance of building rapport and communication, recognizing ethnocentrism (it its many guises), and focusing on the influence that cultural diversity has in problem solving.

At the onset of this project, I started with a pilot group of 25 students. We’ve added more students every semester and experimented with different activities and case studies. Now we have a highly interactive, writing intensive, innovative, interdisciplinary class, ANTH370: Cultural Diversity and Ethics, that reaches 750+ STEM and anthropology students each year.   Students clamor to get in to the class and sections fill within minutes of being opened.  Every week I leave the class invigorated and inspired to do more.

Our primary objective was to provide an alternative to existing lecture-based engineering ethics curriculum and incorporate modern pedagogical theory: active, inclusive learning.  We also wanted to create an enduring interdisciplinary learning community that gave students a safe place to experiment, reflect, make mistakes, bring their own perspectives and research, and voice their concerns, experiences and opinions.  My TAs and I  quickly realized that just focusing on normative ethical stances and epic engineering failure case studies (e.g. Columbia Shuttle disaster or Gulf of Mexico Macondo blowout) was not the way forward.  Students felt little affinity with these tales.  We needed to move beyond traditional philosophical teaching to encompass fundamental anthropology concepts overlaid by the influence of culture and cultural construction of normalcy.  This task was twofold.  Firstly, we needed to synthesize real world ethical problems with the Code of Ethics of corporations and professional associations, together with individual worldviews, to view (and teach) ethics holistically. And secondly, we also needed to identify and holistically analyze opportunities to ‘do good’ — these opportunities are often embedded in the minutia of everyday life.

Role playing is an innovative activity that we introduced into the class to encompass these objectives. A caveat: don’t try this alone!  Without the 110% support of my Administration this huge interdisciplinary endeavor would not have been possible. 

This is no easy task.  Active learning? Role playing?  What is that? …and how do you manage 25/50/100 students in the classroom all having conversations at once?  From faculty detractors, we heard: “Where’s the lecture?”; “…and where are the readings on your syllabus?”; and “What?!? No textbook or exams?!?”  Engineering students, in particular, came to class with rigid conceptions of normalcy. Most are preconditioned to expect ‘lecturing’ and exams; after 3-4 years of being lectured and quizzed on black/white and right/wrong answers, they assume their engineering culture, their way of thinking, and their way of knowing, is the ‘right’ or ‘only’ way to think.  Anthropologists often turn to an old but good article to illustrate the concept of an etic perspective and alternate viewpoints — Body Ritual among the Nacirema (Horace Miner, 1956). However, in my experience, reading and discussing this article does not make much of an impact beyond superficial understanding.  Student do not creatively synthesize, utilize, analyze or evaluate the concept (hitting the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) until they experience something themselves and get to ‘walk a few miles in another’s shoes.’

Role playing is an impactful classroom activity that enables students to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. Through the role play, debrief and subsequent reflections, students actively solve problems, work collaboratively in a community of peers, experience real-world application of knowledge, and reflect on their learning processes. Scholars from many disciplines assert that role playing is particularly good in many dimensions of skill acquisition: personal, interpersonal, cultural, cognitive and professional.

In our class, we initially introduced a role-playing exercise (called the ‘water boiling exercise’) in the second week of the semester.  We identified a real world case study of failed innovation((Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of innovations. 5th ed. Everett M. Rogers. n.p.: New York : Free Press, 2003., 2003. Texas A&M University General Libraries, EBSCOhost (accessed September 7, 2017).)) that had ethical consequence, required critical thinking, was multi-dimensional and had multiple disparate perspectives.  Our primary objectives were to illustrate the fundamental concept of ethnocentrism and introduce STEM students to alternate epistemologies (ways of knowing), axiologies (what is valued) and methodologies.  We were sure that most of the STEM students, given the opportunity, would cling fiercely to a positivist, quantitatively driven, predict and control paradigm.  It took a lot of preparation and we were extremely nervous going in to the exercise. To our delight, the majority (~90%) of students embraced the idea and really got into it – it was clear they more than simply understood the objectives and concepts – they lived them!  We expected that this would be an impactful class, but what we did not expect was that it would evolve into a semester long discussion revisiting and expounding upon the lessons learned in the water boiling exercise in nearly every subsequent class of the semester.

In the role-play, students were grouped into characters or perspectives.  Each group was given their character attributes, their objectives and clues that they had to ‘divulge’ during the course of the role play — much like a murder mystery dinner.  The students worked through the role play, with very little guidance from myself or the TAs, exactly as anticipated: some demonstrating ethnocentric assumptions and asserting that their way of ‘doing things’ was the best and only way of thinking.  Some failed to acknowledge that there could possibly be other ways of thinking while others got angry and/or frustrated, or felt belittled or marginalized. They were actively engaged — just like the real world of problem solving and ethical decision making.  Weeks into the semester and they were still talking about and referencing the role play.  As the class progressed and their exposure to ethical considerations broadened, they often commented that if they were to do it again, they would tackle the role play entirely differently.  Not only did this exercise and its subsequent dialogue meet our university core curriculum objectives (critical thinking, communication and social responsibility), it also met many of the ABET criterion, and course learning objectives.

Over time we have developed multiple role-play scenarios based on real world, sometimes failed, engineering activities to illustrate other concepts such as the impact of culture on human decision making, fractious problems, differing ethical stances, bribery and corruption, and the importance of communication and rapport building.  We have found that the key to success of a role-playing scenario comes from ensuring there is opportunities for diverse opinions, worldviews and expertise to be brought to the table and debated.  With diversity comes insight into other worldviews and ultimately better solutions.

What I have personally learned from this exercise is that if we look beyond the superficial there are many parallels between what outwardly appear to be incongruent disciplines, their theoretical perspectives and what they value.  I learned that active learning can transcend disciplinary boundaries, and that ultimately, we all want to ‘do good’.  By teaching the fundamental anthropological concepts in a STEM classroom, we can not only help teach critical thinking and ethical decision making, but we can also improve the overall quality and longevity of STEM projects in the real world.


About the Author: 

Catharina Laporte is an Instructional Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University. As a cultural anthropologist with a passion for quality education and a pragmatic theoretical perspective, she is specifically interested in how applied anthropology, and an appreciation for cultural diversity, can provide different perspectives on real-world phenomenon, projects and problems. Having extensive international experience in multinational corporations, her current work focuses on improving the education experience by emphasizing the importance on incorporating diverse perspectives into the STEM ethics and professionalism curriculum.   Email:  claporte@tamu.edi  Personal website:  or Faculty website: