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2020 BEST PIC IV PAPER WINNER - Student Perceptions of an Ethics Intervention - Exploration Across Three Course Types

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

DISTINGUISHED LECTURE: 2020 Best PIC and Zone Papers

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Madeline Polmear University of Florida Orcid 16x16

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Madeline Polmear is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering at the University of Florida. She completed her B.S. in environmental engineering, M.S. in civil engineering, and Ph.D. in civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on bridging technical and nontechnical competencies to support the professional preparation and ethical responsibility of engineering students.

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Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado Boulder

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Nathan E. Canney

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Chris Swan Tufts University Orcid 16x16

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Daniel Knight University of Colorado Boulder

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Despite the importance of ethical reasoning and understanding social context in engineering practice, there are a number of barriers to the effective integration of ethics and societal impacts (ESI) in engineering education. One often cited challenge is the dense and technically focused nature of the engineering curriculum, which affords limited time and priority for ESI. Another issue is a lack of student engagement stemming from engineering students who do not see the value and relevance of ESI. However, novel ESI interventions, such as micro-insertions, can present the opportunity to overcome these obstacles by including ESI in technical courses to demonstrate the interconnection between the foundational material and its societal and environmental implications. This research paper explores the impact of one such intervention from the student perspective through qualitative data collected in focus groups. An activity examining hydraulic fracturing from different perspectives (e.g., economic, political, environmental) was incorporated into three courses at the same institution in fall 2017. For the class period, students were placed in groups and each group was assigned a perspective and tasked with conducting research on the topic through that lens. All three courses were offered through a chemical and biological engineering department and included a required, foundational course; an upper-division technical elective; and a lower-division elective open to all majors on campus. The three courses were included as a case study in a larger National Science Foundation-funded study exploring potential exemplars of ESI education across the United States. The case study involved observations of the intervention and separate focus groups with students in the courses.

The selection of the case studies and development of the focus group protocol were grounded in Vanasupa and colleague’s Four Domain Development Diagram. This model provides a theoretical framing for effective learning in engineering education and includes ethical development. The focus group transcripts were analyzed using thematic coding to explore evidence of the model concepts (e.g., value, interest, and autonomy). Using the constant comparative method, the analysis also sought to understand similarities and differences in student perceptions based on course context and major. Across the three courses, students described the value of learning about non-technical issues that are otherwise invisible in the engineering curriculum and appreciated the autonomy to conduct their own research on hydraulic fracturing from the assigned perspective. Some students in the required foundational course expressed that it would have been helpful if the relevance of the activity to the course content was more explicit. The paper will detail the full qualitative findings and discuss implications of the research, including the implementation of micro-insertions of ESI in various engineering curricular settings.

Polmear, M., & Bielefeldt, A. R., & Canney, N. E., & Swan, C., & Knight, D. (2021, July), 2020 BEST PIC IV PAPER WINNER - Student Perceptions of an Ethics Intervention - Exploration Across Three Course Types Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36544

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