A case study is an account of an activity, event, or problem that contains a real or hypothetical situation and includes complexities you would encounter in the workplace. Case studies are used to help you see how the complexities of real life influence decisions. Case study investigators gather data through different sources, which may include direct observation, interviews, focus groups, or surveys. Investigators will then offer an analysis.
This may take the form of a historical case study which analyzes the causes and consequences of a situation and discusses the lessons learned.
Other types of case studies imagine or role play to make plausible recommendations to senior management. Some case studies attempt to solve a problem by developing a new design. These types of case studies are problem-oriented.
Unlike experiments, where researchers control for different variables, case studies are detailed investigations into real life phenomena.
Why use a Case Study?
Case studies expose you to real-life examples of situations that you may deal with, or not otherwise experience – if you come across something only once in your career, you’re learning on the fly. Case studies allow you to:
Explore the nature of a problem and circumstances that affect a solution
Learn about others' viewpoints and how they may be taken into account
Define your priorities and make your own decisions to solve a similar problem
Predict outcomes and consequences
If you’ve seen something similar in a case study, you’ve got something to look back on. Case studies also let you lay out all the information from hindsight, including the stuff that might not be obvious in the moment, but is there if you know to look for it and ask the right questions. You can put yourself in the shoes of the various decision makers and consider what blind spots you might have in a similar situation.
They can also promote creative thought. Some readers may have a similar situation but have never considered the solution that worked in the case study. Other readers may find that the ultimate solution in the case study won't work for them, but the trial and error solutions discarded in the case study may provide guidance about a path that will work. Finding out what other people did isn't just a "how to" to fix something. It's a "how to" in ways to address a problem.
Case studies demonstrate the complexity and messiness of real situations, and the reality that any decision to be made has to be made with incomplete information.
In other words: They are NOT clean sanitized homework problems or simple examples that have a single easy answer. They are real situations with real ethical dilemmas that may or may not have been dealt with properly in the past. They provide you (the students) to delve into the nasty, twisted, complicated reality of ethical dilemmas and hopefully come out with a healthy respect that decision makers in ethical situations don't always have a quick simple answer but are caught in a dilemma and they try to do the best they can in spite of the situation. You can not get this experience any other way short of placing you into an actual ethical dilemma, which ironically would be unethical for us to do to you.
A huge thank you to the members of the Engineering Ethics Division of the American Society for Engineering Education. This group of incredibly thoughtful and helpful engineering educators - too many to name - greatly contributed to the content on this page.