For students pursuing engineering degrees, training in ethics, social responsibility, and allied topics is advocated by a variety of stakeholders, mandated in ABET accreditation requirements, and largely presumed by professional associations and licensing bodies. As a consequence, almost all engineering students have at least some exposure to engineering ethics training. Additionally, many formal courses and programs have been created to promote ethical integrity and professional responsibility among engineering graduates, while a variety of other interventions (e.g., service learning programs) have been developed to more broadly challenge engineering students to see themselves as socially engaged citizens and professionals.
Nonetheless, there has been a surprising lack of research on development of social and ethical responsibility among undergraduate engineering students. Few studies have systematically examined levels of ethical knowledge, decision-making capabilities, and commitments to social responsibility among large numbers of engineering students, much less examined how such indicators change over time and are impacted (or not) by specific kinds of learning experiences. As a result, faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders have little evidence to guide creation of high-impact courses and programs. Still other recent research suggests that such impacts may be blunted by a “culture of disengagement” that pervades many engineering schools. This paper reports on an National Science Foundation (NSF) supported CCE STEM research project that aims to address some of these gaps. Our study addresses two main questions:
RQ1: What do engineering students perceive as responsible (and irresponsible) professional conduct, and what do they perceive as socially just (and unjust) technical practices?, and
RQ2: How do foundational measures and understandings of social and ethical responsibility change during a four-year engineering degree program, both in general and in relation to specific kinds of learning experiences?
This paper offers an overview of the longitudinal mixed-methods study design we are using to collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data from undergraduate engineering students at four universities. These schools represent a variety of institution types, and each has students in programs of particular interest, e.g., those involving service-learning or intensified ethics instruction. Our data collection efforts were initiated in early Fall 2015, with survey responses collected from 757 first-semester engineering students at four schools. The survey includes items and measures related to engineering ethics knowledge, justice beliefs, political and social involvement, macro-ethical considerations, moral attentiveness, moral disengagement, ethical climate, and extensive demographics. Repeat measures will be collected from as many of the original respondents as possible during their fifth and eighth academic semesters. To more deeply probe constructs and themes of interest, we will also conduct semi-structured interviews with more than 10% of survey respondents during their first and eighth academic semesters.
In addition to describing our ambitious and novel study design, this paper reports preliminary insights from the first phase of our study. We especially focus on some highlights from our initial analysis of the survey data, as well as how select survey results are being used to stratify the interview sample and tune the interview protocol to focus on some observed patterns in the survey data. We expect this paper will be of interest to scholars involved with teaching and/or conducting research on ethics, social responsibility, and related topics.
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