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What Ethical Role Models?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Our Student Engineering Ethical Development (SEED) Study, the first national assessment of engineering ethics education, addressed the overarching question, \"What is the impact of educational experiences and institutional culture on students\' ethical development? 



The posting below looks how the institutions' culture impacts effectiveness of classroom-based ethics education. It is by Matthew A. Holsapple* and is from Prism, March 2012.
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Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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What Ethical Role Models?


Teaching must address negative student perceptions.

Engineering educators agree about the importance of a strong foundation in ethics education, but mixed research findings call into question the effectiveness of traditional teaching methods. Generally, research about ethics education focuses on teaching practices and overlooks ways in which institutional culture and students' other experiences influence educational effectiveness. Our Student Engineering Ethical Development (SEED) Study, the first national assessment of engineering ethics education, addressed the overarching question, \"What is the impact of educational experiences and institutional culture on students' ethical development?\"

To examine institutional culture, curricular and cocurricular experiences related to ethics, and students' ethical development, we collected data from 19 partner institutions using focus groups and interviews with faculty, students, and administrators, and a survey of 3,914 students. We analyzed data from focus groups and interviews, imposing a conceptual framework on our analysis and outlining themes that emerged across institutions.

We found that faculty and students do indeed have different perceptions of the engineering ethics education at their institutions, and that aspects of the institutional culture contribute to these discrepancies. Faculty described ethics education as teaching students how to approach complex, nuanced ethical dilemmas, but students described the faculty as being overly focused on teaching students to follow prescribed rules and codes of ethics. Faculty also described role-modeling of ethical behavior as an important component of ethics education. Students, however, largely did not see faculty as positive ethical role models. For example, students reported observing unethical behavior by faculty and hearing faculty endorse or encourage unethical behavior in students. Students also reported seeing a focus on academic dishonesty and its consequences - including punishment - at the expense of more complex considerations of engineering ethics in the classroom.

Based on these findings, it is clear that students' perceptions of their institutions' culture can undermine faculty efforts and limit the effectiveness of classroom-based ethics education. It is essential that faculty and administrators listen to students and address these perspectives. We offer the following suggestions for engineering educators and administrators:

* Consider ethics education as taking place throughout the institutional culture, not just in the engineering classroom. Students are exposed to messages about ethics throughout their undergraduate careers, in the formal curriculum and outside the classroom. These messages can both affect students' ethical development and potentially work against what faculty teach in the classroom. These messages do not just represent potential pitfalls to teaching ethics; they also represent new opportunities.

* Incorporate discussions of the complex nature of engineering. Present nuanced, complicated ethical dilemmas, like those a professional engineer would encounter, as part of ethics education. Also, when using more black-and-white ethics lessons, draw connections between simple issues and larger, more complex ones.

* Draw students' attention to positive examples of faculty ethical behavior. It is not enough for faculty to quietly behave ethically and hope that students notice; our findings suggest they do not. Instructors should engage students in explicit discussion of these examples and the choices involved, and explore their ethical implications.

* Include student perspectives when planning and evaluating ethics education. Our findings suggest that faculty and students have a different understanding of existing engineering education efforts. Student understanding should be taken into account in the planning, implementation, and evaluation stages of education.


* Matthew A. Holsapple is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. This article is excerpted from \"Framing Faculty and Student Discrepancies in Engineering Ethics Education Delivery\" in the April 2012 Journal of Engineering Education. Coauthors are Donald Carpenter, director of assessment and associate professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University; Janel Sutkus, director of institutional research and analysis, Carnegie Mellon University; Cynthia Finelli, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Engineering and research associate professor of engineering education at the University of Michigan; and Trevor Harding, professor of materials engineering at California Polytechnic State University.