2018 FYEE Conference

Effectiveness of Ethical Interventions in a First-Year Engineering Course: A Pilot Study

Presented at Technical Session II

For most students, college is “a time during which they define themselves in relation to others, and experiment with different social roles…” (Gurin, 1999). Students may begin to question their usual social norms as they begin to experience a larger and more diverse population and are exposed to new social situations such as communal living, class schedules, ‘free time’, part-time jobs, and parties. For many, this may be the first time they confront the ethics and morals by which they were raised.

Engineering students are tasked with the additional challenge of reconciling themselves with the ethical codes that are integral to the profession of engineering. Students must learn to make engineering decisions that take into account ethical and moral concepts and must learn to resolve serious ethical dilemmas – often with the knowledge that people’s lives may depend upon those decisions. While it is mandated that ABET accredited engineering programs provide their students with education about engineering ethics (outcome 4, formerly outcome f), the form that education takes varies considerably with each program. Further, there is continual debate at the university level about the efficacy of engineering ethics education (King & Kitchener, 2004). In particular, at least one prominent study (Colby & Sullivan, 2008) has documented skepticism amongst faculty with respect to the (positive) nature and influence of the ethics education provided.

The purpose of this pilot study is to characterize the moral development of first year engineering students and examine how ethical and moral outlooks change throughout the first year engineering curriculum when exposed to a set of specific ethics-based interventions. The ability of first year engineering students to make ethical decisions is assessed using two related instruments – the Defining Issues Test (DIT-2) and the Engineering Ethical Reasoning Instrument (EERI) that are designed to assess moral decision making via the Kohlbergian model of moral development. These instruments were implemented via a pre-post testing model, with instructional interventions taking place between the tests. Instructional effectiveness was also analyzed in relation to moral development and ethical problem resolution by means of a focus group.

While mixed, the results of this pilot study indicate that 1.)The instructional methods have an effect on student thought processes (though not necessarily the intended one) 2.) Engineering students tend to score higher on the EERI than on the DIT-2 and 3.) Engineers taking the DIT-2 may outscore students in other professional and technical majors.

Colby A., & Sullivan W. M., “Ethics teaching in undergraduate engineering.” Journal of
Engineering Education, 97 (3), 327-338 (2008).

Gurin, P. “Selections from the compelling need for diversity in higher education, expert reports in defense of the University of Michigan” Equity & Excellence, 32 (2), 36-62 (1999).

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. A. “Reflective judgment: Theory and research on the
development of epistemic assumptions through adulthood.” Educational Psychologist ,
39 (1), 5-18 (2004).

  1. Dr. Scott Streiner Rowan University [biography]
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