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Engineering Students’ Varied and Changing Views of Social Responsibility

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session 3

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.643.1 - 26.643.16



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Paper Authors


Greg Rulifson University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Greg Rulifson is a Civil Engineering doctoral candidate focused on qualitative engineering education research while also completing the Engineering in Developing Communities certificate. Greg earned his bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice from UC Berkeley where he developed a strong desire to use engineering to facilitate developing communities' capacity for success. and earned his master's degree in Structural Engineering and Risk Analysis from Stanford University. His dissertation will focus on how student's connections of social responsibility and engineering change throughout college as well as how engineering service is valued in employment and supported in the workplace.

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Angela R Bielefeldt University of Colorado, Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE). She serves as the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Education in the CEAE Department, as well as the ABET assessment coordinator. Professor Bielefeldt is the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where interdisciplinary students learn about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Professor Bielefeldt's research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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Engineering Students’ Varied and Changing Views of Social ResponsibilityEngineering students have been found to have a wide range of opinions on their socialresponsibilities as engineers. These ideas relate to a variety of microethical and macroethicalissues from safety to equality. A previous large quantitative study found that 43% of thestudents experienced statistically significant changes in their social responsibility attitudes. Tworesearch questions are being explored in this research: (i) How do engineering students changetheir understanding of social responsibility from the end of their first year in college to the end oftheir second year of college? (ii) What experiences seemed to cause these changes? To answerthese research questions, a qualitative approach was used.Students representing a broad range of attitudes toward social responsibility (SR) were invited toparticipate in the research based on their responses to a survey at the beginning of their first yearof college. Thirty-four students were interviewed in their second semester of college, and thirty-two of these students were interviewed again one year later. Interviews were semi-structured andthe protocol differed between the two cycles to build from the previous interview. In the secondround, students represented six different engineering majors (primarily civil, environmental andmechanical), five students were no longer engineering majors, and seven different institutions(initially four institutions). Students were again asked to define SR and what influenced thesechanges or reinforced the same definition from the previous year. Interviews were analyzed forimportant themes using the codebook developed for the first round of interviews while remainingopen to new codes. The three authors coded a set of ten interviews (four per person with one incommon) and acceptable inter-rater reliability was achieved. Two authors continued analyzingthe remaining interviews using this reliable codebook.During the first round of interviews, family, friends and high school extracurricular activitiesoutweighed college courses and extracurriculars as influences on SR understanding. In thesecond round, definitions of and influences on SR were usually more developed and detailed dueto influences from a variety of factors ranging from internships and college extracurricularactivities to popular media coverage of natural and economic disasters. Students still enrolled inan engineering program rarely attributed their definition change or reinforcement to the classesoffered at their institution. On the contrary, students who chose to leave engineering for anothermajor had a much broader and more engaged sense of social responsibility that was largelyinfluenced by courses available to them outside of engineering.The varied and rich experiences of these 32 students will guide a discussion around the gap ofsocially relevant content in engineering courses and the implications for retention of studentswho need to connect their chosen profession and courses with their personal socialresponsibility. Recommendations and references for relating courses to student interests andpassions will be presented to move forward in educating the holistic, socially engaged engineer.Third and fourth round interviews will be conducted in future years to paint a longer and evenmore comprehensive picture of these students’ developmental trajectories through college.

Rulifson, G., & Bielefeldt, A. R. (2015, June), Engineering Students’ Varied and Changing Views of Social Responsibility Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23981

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