Examples of unethical and irresponsible practices by practicing engineers continue to make headlines. In addition, the National Academy of Engineering and other organizations have issued numerous calls to cultivate greater social and ethical responsibility among engineering students and professionals. These drivers have motivated the creation of many formal ethics courses and programs across engineering education, as well as other interventions (e.g., service learning programs) to more broadly challenge engineering students to see themselves as engaged citizens and community members. However, there has been a lack of research on foundational understandings of social and ethical responsibility among undergraduate engineering students, both in terms of what these specific constructs mean to the students, as well as how their views change over time and are impacted by specific kinds of learning experiences.
To address this lack of research and empirical evidence, our NSF-supported Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM (CCE STEM) research project is exploring three main objectives using a longitudinal, mixed-methods study design involving researchers and students at four universities. The larger objectives of this project are to: 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.
Our larger study design involves collecting data at three different points in the students’ undergraduate experience: 1) Baseline survey and interviews during their first semester/year, 2) Mid-point survey during the junior year (5th semester), and 3) Survey and interviews during their senior year (8th semester). The survey includes items and measures related to engineering ethics knowledge, justice beliefs, political and social involvement, macro-ethical considerations, moral attentiveness, moral disengagement, and ethical climate, along with extensive demographics. The interview protocol explored these areas through questions related to: 1) general definitions of ethics and engineering ethics, including macro-ethics, 2) experiences (past, present, and future) that may shape students’ ethical perspectives and sense of social responsibility, 3) ethical climate, and 4) ethical scenarios. The baseline data collection included survey responses from 757 participants and 113 interviews. Preliminary analysis of the survey data has been completed.
In this paper we describe the development of the qualitative research protocol for this study, informed by the survey data and resulting in a codebook used to analyze the interview data. This coding framework is organized in three major areas: influences (persons, experiences, etc.), learned outcomes, and perspectives in specific areas of interest such as general definitions of ethics and engineering ethics, views on the university climate, etc. In this paper we present initial findings and insights from the interview data related to students’ perceptions of learned values and outcomes associated with ethics and social responsibility, their definitions of ethics generally and engineering ethics specifically, and specific influences they perceived as important.
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