Ethics and the Development of Professional Identities of Engineering Students

By Loui, Michael C. | Journal of Engineering Education, October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Ethics and the Development of Professional Identities of Engineering Students

Loui, Michael C., Journal of Engineering Education


How do undergraduate students in engineering conceive of themselves as professionals? How can a course on engineering ethics affect the development of an undergraduate student's professional identity? In this project, students responded to questions about the characteristics and responsibilities of professional engineers. The results indicate that students learn about professionalism primarily from relatives and co-workers who are engineers, and rarely from technical engineering courses. Even before they study engineering ethics, students put honesty and integrity on par with technical competence as an essential characteristic of engineers. In the course, students benefit from cases of actual incidents and from classroom activities that encourage diverse perspectives on moral problems. By analyzing cases in groups and by hearing different perspectives, students build self-confidence in moral reasoning. By the end of the course, some students understand professional responsibility not only as liability for blame but in a capacious sense as stewardship for society.

Keywords: engineering ethics, professional identity


Since the late nineteenth century, academic programs have replaced apprenticeships in educating professionals, including engineers [I]. Consequently, academic programs now bear the primary responsibility for preparing students to become engineers. If we think of engineering education as socializing students to become professional engineers, then we can apply the standard four-stage model of role acquisition [2]. In the anticipatory stage, the student learns about the profession through contact with engineering practitioners and through the mass media. In the formal stage, the student learns the formal expectations of engineers, such as design processes, technical standards, and licensure requirements. In the informal stage, the student learns about unofficial expectations and everyday practices. Finally, in the personal stage, the student reconciles the social expectations for engineers with his or her personal identity. Perhaps only a few undergraduate students reach the final stage, at which being an engineer is integral to the student's identity. Nevertheless, during their undergraduate years, engineering students begin to develop their identities as professionals.

Studying the development of professional identities of law students, Floyd [3] determined that the overemphasis on analyzing legal opinions is "boring" for students. In law school, the valorization of analytical skills may discourage students from improving interpersonal skills, which are essential for professional practice. Similarly, in engineering education, Florman [4] called the overemphasis on solving technical problems "laborious and disagreeable." In engineering school, the inculcation of disciplined habits may socialize students in undesirable ways [5].

In the early 1960s, Perry [6] studied the intellectual and moral development of college students. His research subjects were undergraduate men and women enrolled at Harvard and Radcliffe. Since then, Perry's model has been tested with other populations of college students. Psychologists and philosophers have studied the development of moral identity [7-10]. But there has been little empirical work on whether and how instruction in ethics affects an undergraduate student's moral development, beyond improvements in moral reasoning skill [11,12].

In this project, I focused on the effect of instruction in engineering ethics on the development of an undergraduate engineering student's professional identity. I addressed the following questions.

* During their studies, how do undergraduates in engineering develop their self identities as nascent professionals, particularly their understandings of engineers' ethical obligations?

* How can instruction in engineering ethics affect the development of a student's professional identity?

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