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An Investigation of When and Where Ethics Appears in Undergraduate Engineering Curricula

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Innovating Ethics Curriculum and Instruction

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Andrew Katz Virginia Tech

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Andrew Katz is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech.

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Umair Shakir Virginia Tech

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Umair Shakir is a PhD student in Engineering Education. Prior to pursuing doctoral studies, he worked in the construction industry for five years in Pakistan and Dubai, UAE. He then joined the School of Civil Engineering, The University of Lahore, Pakistan as an Assistant Professor. He is working on a cross-national comparative study of engineering ethics and education systems in North America, Europe, and China.
His passion also includes revitalization of the education system of developing countries for the welfare of underprivileged people. Currently, he is developing a financial support model for the education of low socioeconomic status students of South Asian countries, especially Pakistan.

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The consequential nature of many engineering decisions and ramifications of engineering projects suggests that it would behoove engineers to learn about ethical decision-making in their formal education. Despite the importance of engineers learning about ethics, however, there exist wide variations in the specific details - the when and where of engineering students learning about ethics, let alone engineering ethics, can be nebulous. Some countries address this issue directly and standardize their curricular expectations for ethics that undergraduate engineering students experience. That move makes it easy to identify at least one point when a professional engineer may have learned ethics. In the United States, there is no such standardization. Instead, there exists a potential for large variation in engineering students’ undergraduate curricula as many colleges and departments making their own curricular decisions. What does that variation look like? We have an underdeveloped answer to that question of exactly when and where an engineer might be exposed to ideas about ethics in their formal education. Although the engineering ethics education community should want to have a better understanding of this “when and where” problem, obtaining such a picture of the ethics education landscape is challenging.

This research paper helps the engineering education community obtain a more detailed view of the “when” and “where” dimensions of the ethics education space by looking at the curricular requirements outlined by 125 engineering programs in North America. While there exist several ways to address this problem - e.g., surveys, interviewing individual faculty or administrators, interviewing students to hear about their experiences - we chose a different approach to get a wider view of the landscape. Rather than repeating the efforts of several other research teams and surveying a theoretically representative sample of faculty members and/or students, we created a dataset by sampling program requirements from the top 25 engineering degree-producing universities (according to the 2018 ASEE By the Numbers publication) in the United States and Canada. For each university, we looked at the publicly available curriculum documentation for the five most nationally popular engineering disciplines (based on number of undergraduate degrees awarded in 2018) - mechanical, civil, electrical, computer science, and chemical engineering. We augmented the curricular data with institutional-level data from the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS). We asked two types of research questions. The first is descriptive: when and where might engineering students see ethics (both engineering-specific and non-engineering-specific) in their undergraduate programs? For this we present a basic descriptive statistical analysis. The second is a more exploratory data analysis question asking: what are the patterns in ethics requirements (a) across disciplines within a university, (b) across the same engineering discipline at different universities, and (c) across different kinds of universities? For this we applied statistical comparisons and clustering techniques. The analysis highlights disciplinary differences consistent with previous literature as well as moderate institutional effects on ethics curricula. The results we present have implications for engineering ethics educators and administrators working at various levels in the entire undergraduate engineering education ecosystem.

Katz, A., & Shakir, U. (2020, June), An Investigation of When and Where Ethics Appears in Undergraduate Engineering Curricula Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--33950

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