What Ethical Role Models?

By Holsapple, Matthew A. | ASEE Prism, March 2012 | Go to article overview
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What Ethical Role Models?


Holsapple, Matthew A., ASEE Prism


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.

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