by Qin Zhu

As educators, we are all concerned about the purposes of education.  There can be many types of purposes for education. In STEM education, a major purpose for education is to help students develop or acquire technical and professional skills, thereby enhancing their employability prospects. Are there, or could there possibly exist, alternative purposes for education beyond the mere acquisition of skills? While it might be true that engineers must rely on essential skills to ensure that they are competent in working on projects, deeper inquiries persist regarding the specific skills to be cultivated and their overarching purpose.

There are certain assumptions and values underlying different skills or methods for engineering problem-solving. For instance, engaging in the study of cutting-edge technologies in space mining, including the concept of “space colonization,” often reflects an inherently anthropocentric perspective. This viewpoint posits that space represents a reservoir of resources ripe for human extraction to address the necessities and wants of human civilization. But students must critically consider whether space mining is worth pursuing. Here are some questions for them to ponder. Do the values inherent in space mining align with my own? Whose interests does space mining serve? What kind of engineer do I become through participation in these activities? Such reflective questioning may not be readily fostered through the acquisition of technical skills alone. Rather, it necessitates a gradual development of students’ moral minds. In other words, how do students grow as moral persons more than simply technical specialists? Moral growth extends beyond the mere development of moral reasoning or a sense of right and wrong. It encompasses the nurturing of moral sensitivity, empathy, and relational responsibility. Education, therefore, functions as a vehicle for nurturing students’ moral maturation, enabling them to lead fulfilling and ethical lives as engaged members of their professional communities.

How do we then grow our moral minds?

A growing sprout

Confucian philosopher Mencius suggested that virtuous tendencies often grow out of “four sprouts (siduan, 四端)” which are innate emotional inclinations fundamental in human nature.  In environments conducive to nurturing, the four innate moral inclinations within human nature can develop into the four Confucian virtues, resembling seeds sprouting into their most prized forms:

  • The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence.
  • The heart of disdain (shame/disgust) is the sprout of righteousness.
  • The heart of deference is the sprout of propriety.
  • The heart of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom.

According to Flanagan (2016), the four sprouts (as part of human nature) consist of four dispositions:

(1) To experience concern, compassion, the impulse to help infants and toddlers in distress, which is extended eventually to one’s family, village, nation-state, possibly to all humans, even all sentient beings;

(2) To experience shame/disgust at shameful/disgusting actions—for example, lying in one’s own excrement—eventually extending the associated feelings to all moral violations;

(3) To experience an impulse to defer to humans or nonhuman animals who are larger or more powerful, which is eventually extended to those who are both older and wiser, and embodied by ritual practices (everything from manners to mourning rituals) that attune the heart-mind to receiving, maintaining, and passing on the wisdom of the ages;

(4) To experience certain things as right or wrong, fitting or not, fair or not fair, which eventually extends to a mature sense of rightness and wrongness.

Guiding questions for group discussions:

  • How can we establish nurturing environments that facilitate the growth of students’ innate moral inclinations (or four sprouts) into virtues within STEM practices?
  • What potential obstacles might impede students’ moral growth, as you can imagine or have experienced?
  • What evidence, both within and beyond the classroom, can be gathered to illustrate the moral development of students?
  • What skills are crucial for students to cultivate in order to facilitate their moral growth?

Flanagan, Owen, ‘Classical Chinese Sprouts’, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility (New York, 2016; online edn, Oxford Academic, 17 Nov. 2016),, accessed 21 Feb. 2024.