Ethical Development in Undergraduate Engineering: Results from a Multi-University Survey

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LaPatin, Michaela Leigh
Poleacovschi, Cristina
Feinstein, Scott Grant
Faust, Kasey M.
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Padgett-Walsh, Kate
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Nguyen, Luan
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Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering

The Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering seeks to apply knowledge of the laws, forces, and materials of nature to the construction, planning, design, and maintenance of public and private facilities. The Civil Engineering option focuses on transportation systems, bridges, roads, water systems and dams, pollution control, etc. The Construction Engineering option focuses on construction project engineering, design, management, etc.

The Department of Civil Engineering was founded in 1889. In 1987 it changed its name to the Department of Civil and Construction Engineering. In 2003 it changed its name to the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering.

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  • Department of Civil Engineering (1889-1987)
  • Department of Civil and Construction Engineering (1987-2003)
  • Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering (2003–present)

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Philosophy and Religious Studies
The Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies focuses on two areas of study. Its major in Philosophy seeks to examine human experience and reality through critical reflection and argument, developing skills in critical analysis and knowledge of ethics and philosophy. The major in Religious Studies seeks to investigate and reflect upon world religions in an objective, critical, and appreciative manner, providing students with knowledge of religion’s nature and its roles in social and individual life.
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Political Science
The Department of Political Science has been a separate department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (formerly the College of Sciences and Humanities) since 1969 and offers an undergraduate degree (B.A.) in political science, a graduate degree (M.A.) in political science, a joint J.D./M.A. degree with Drake University, an interdisciplinary degree in cyber security, and a graduate Certificate of Public Management (CPM). In addition, it provides an array of service courses for students in other majors and other colleges to satisfy general education requirements in the area of the social sciences.
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During undergraduate engineering education, curriculum often focuses on technical knowledge rather than ethical development. The role of ethics within the engineering profession, whether broadly or as it applies to specific circumstances, is often given a cursory lesson rather than being woven throughout the curriculum for optimal understanding. When ethics is incorporated into curriculum, programs tend to focus on microethics concerning issues that arise in particular contexts and interactions between individuals, rather than macroethics that address societal concerns more broadly. Notably, students often obtain an informal ethics education—i.e., education outside of the classroom— through involvement in student organizations, internships, or daily interactions with peers. For instance, a student interning at a water resources engineering firm might visit the project site of a stormwater revitalization. Upon visiting, the student can recognize the disparities between communities that typically receive these services fist and those communities of color and lower socioeconomic status that are often ignored. Witnessing this unjust system firsthand can encourage that student to consider systemic inequities in future work. Experiences such as this contribute to a student’s ethical development and can impact their work as an engineering professional. In this study, we aim to understand the differences in ethical development among students based on sociodemographic factors. In April 2020, we deployed a survey to undergraduate students at two universities to assess ethical development using the Defining Issues Test (DIT). The results of this test include a numeric rating indicating the student’s level of ethical development based on Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. By using the DIT, we were able to produce a standardized metric to evaluate ethical development across universities, majors, and sociodemographic factors. We used statistical inferencing to explore how sociodemographics were associated with ethics. Here we present the survey analyses, showing that certain demographics may impact a student’s ethical development. For instance, the preliminary results of this study show that women scored higher on the DIT than men. Additionally, those students who identified as liberal had a higher score than those who identified as conservative, and those who identified as less religious scored higher than those who identified as very religious. These results suggest that ethical decisions are grounded in political and religious beliefs. Further research can identify why and how political and religious views influence ethical decision-making.
This conference proceeding is published as LaPatin, Michaela Leigh, Cristina Poleacovschi, Kate Padgett Walsh, Scott Grant Feinstein, Luan Minh Nguyen, and Kasey M. Faust. "Ethical Development in Undergraduate Engineering: Results from a Multi-University Survey." In 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access. 2021. ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. Posted with permission.