Recognizing the critical roles played by technical professionals in serving the public and addressing grand challenges, many stakeholders advocate intensified ethics training for current and future engineers. In response, many formal courses and programs have been created to promote professional responsibility and ethical integrity among engineering graduates. Other interventions (e.g., service learning programs) have been developed to more broadly challenge engineering students to see themselves as engaged citizens and community members. Yet there has been a lack of research on measures and understandings of social and ethical responsibility among undergraduate engineering students. Further, few studies have looked at how such indicators change over time and are impacted by specific kinds of learning experiences. As a result, faculty and administrators often have little evidence to guide creation of high-impact courses and programs. Other recent research also suggests that the impacts of such interventions may be blunted by pervasive "cultures of disengagement" in many engineering schools.
This NSF-supported CCE STEM research project aims to shed additional light on these issues, with an emphasis on three main objectives: O1) Characterize patterns of ethical development among undergraduate engineering students, O2) Identify specific context variables (e.g., climate and culture of programs and institutions) and types of interventions (e.g., formal ethics instruction, service learning programs, etc.) that have positive (or negative) impacts on foundational measures and understandings of social and ethical responsibility, and O3) Identify specific student characteristics that can be leveraged to grow programs oriented toward social and/or ethical responsibility, while increasing program alignment with – and impacts on – participating individuals. As these objectives suggest, we intend that findings from this project can help guide ongoing efforts to positively impact the social and ethical commitments of engineering graduates, including through research-based recommendations for curricular reform.
In this paper we describe this research project in more detail, with particular emphasis on the longitudinal, mixed-methods study design being leveraged in support of the objectives given above. More specifically, we present our research questions, study contexts, target subject populations, and procedures for quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis, as well as some possible limitations to our approach. We additionally discuss the novel, ambitious, and comparative nature of this project given that its collaborators and research subjects are drawn from four U.S. engineering schools, and we review our progress to date and plans for bringing the project to completion over a five-year timeline. This paper will likely be of particular interest to scholars who teach and/or research engineering ethics, social responsibility, and allied topics.
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