Close Menu

Case Study Method

Case studies can be an important tool in teaching ethics as they offer students a chance to develop their ability to solve problems using knowledge, concepts, and skills relevant to their future professional goals. They help demonstrate to students that problems they may encounter in their professional work can be solved by skills acquired through studying ethics. (1)

The first afternoon of the EAC workshop was spent reading and discussing a case study. At first, the participants were asked to discuss the case in an unguided manner, so they could see what students would experience in a class discussion if they were left on their own. After this, the leaders of the workshop would present a “seven-step method” for analyzing an ethical problem. Finally, the group would reconvene and once again go through the case using this method for discussing the case. (2)

While it is impossible to simulate the richness of a face-to-face discussion of this kind in an online context, you can get a sense of how a case discussion can work. Please read the case study “Catalyst B” by Michael S. Pritchard. After reading the case and answering the questions posed at the end of the case, take a look at the “seven step method” and use this to again answer the questions at the end of the case. How could this framework be used to guide discussion about the case? You can also look at the commentary from the author on a slightly altered version of the Catalyst case, entitled "Dissent about Quality" for more insight. (3)



Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University

Most engineering case studies do not present readers with follow‑up scenarios that require reflection on new situations resulting from initial decisions. An exception is this set of sequenced scenarios which originally appeared in a survey in Chemical Engineer (May S, 1980) conducted by Roy V. Hughson and Philip M. Kohn. Although these scenarios are extremely brief, they can easily be expanded to include more detail. [We have changed the facts somewhat.] This is the first part. You will read the second part later, when we discuss the use of case studies in more detail.

A recent graduate of Engineering Tech (ETU), you have been employed in the R & D Chemical Engineering Division of Larom, Inc. for the past several months. You were hired because of the promising research you did with catalysts as a student at ETU.

Alex Smith, the head of your unit, showed immediate interest in your research on catalyst B when you arrived at Larom, asking to see the results of the research you did at ETU. Although he said he found your work promising, your work assignments during the first several months at Larom have mainly been in other areas. You have had little time to pursue your research on catalyst B since your arrival at Larom.

Alex calls a meeting of engineers in your unit and announces that it must make a recommendation within the next two days on what catalyst Larom should use in processing a major product. The overwhelming consensus in the unit, based on many years of experience, is that catalyst A is best for the job. However, the research you have been conducting provides preliminary evidence that catalyst B may actually be better. So, you suggest that the recommendation be delayed another month to see if firmer evidence can be found. If B is the better catalyst, Larom will save a great deal of money if it opts for B over A.

Alex replies, “We don't have a month. We have two days.” He then asks you to write up the report, leaving out the preliminary data you have gathered about catalyst B. He says, "It would be nice to do some more research on B, but we just don't have the time. Besides, I doubt if anything would show up in the next month to change our minds. This is one of those times we have to be decisive‑‑and we have to look decisive. They're really getting impatient with us on this one. Anyway, we've had a lot of experience in this area."

You like working for Larom and you feel lucky to have landed such a good job right out of school. Although you would like to have more time to carry out your own research, you have enjoyed working on other projects in the division; and you have learned a lot from your colleagues in the few months you have been working with them. You are due for a significant pay raise soon if you play your cards right. It looks like you have a bright future with Larom, Inc.

What should you do?

1. Write the report as requested?

2. Write the report but refuse to sign it unless something is said about Catalyst B?

3. Refuse to write the report, threatening to go around Alex to the next level of management if a full report is not made?

4. Other?


(1) Oljar, Elizabeth A. “The Value of Case Law in Teaching Philosophical Ethics.” Teaching Ethics 3.1 (Fall 2002) 2.

(2) Davis, Michael Ethics and the University, 122.

(3) Pritchard, Michael. "Dissent about Quality" and "Commentary on "Dissent about Quality" Online Ethics Center. <> Last viewed 11 July 2007.

Further Reading

Ermer, Gayle E. “Using Case Studies to Teach Engineering Ethic sand Professionalism” Teaching Ethics 4:2 (Spring 2004) 33-39.

This article, written by a 2002 participant of the EAC workshops held at IIT, describes how she has used the Catalyst B case study in her engineering 101 course.