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Enhancing the Teaching of Research Ethics Through Emotional Priming with Encounters with Patients and Reflection

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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

Supporting Biomedical Engineering Students in Holistic Development

Tagged Division

Biomedical Engineering

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Ashley J. Earle York College of Pennsylvania

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Ashley is an Assistant Professor in the Mechanical and Civil Engineering department at York College of Pennsylvania. She received her B.S in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and B.A. in International Studies from Lafayette College. She then pursued her passion for neuromuscular disease research at Cornell University where she received her PhD in Biomedical Engineering. At York, she is passionate about developing pedagogy that encourages students in reflective learning and personal self reflection in engineering classes in addition to her passion for engineering ethics and conceptual learning.

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Nozomi Nishimura Cornell University

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Isaac Smith Brigham Young University

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David M. Small Cornell University

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Previous research has shown that the ability to consider the view of others impacted by actions is a major predictor for good ethical behavior. However, it is often hard to teach a student to understand the perspectives of impacted people and thus teaching ethical decision making in the context of engineering is challenging. For biomedical engineering specifically, one of the primary groups of people who are impacted by design and research decisions are patients. We wanted to evaluate whether emotional priming through having students meet cancer patients in a panel discussion would make them more receptive to learning about research ethics. All the students received formalized instruction on research ethics in a didactic seminar, but the treatment group met the patients before the research ethics seminar. We took a two-phased inquiry to determine the impact of the patient seminar on student’s ethical thought; 1) did student ethical leanings change assayed by on a bioethics survey instrument, and 2) did students’ thought processes regarding the impact of their ethical decisions change in their written reflective essays.

Phase I was implemented in a group of summer research undergraduate scholars who had the choice of whether or not to attend the cancer patient seminar. This allowed us to directly evaluate if the patient seminar produced an effect in ethical tendencies. We found that there were no statistically significant changes in situational ethics response, moral disengagement, perspective taking, or moral expansiveness. It is possible that the brevity of these interventions was insufficient to lead to a significant change in response to the survey questions.

Phase II therefore shifted the focus onto how the cancer patient seminar impacted the way students described their thoughts in a reflective essay on a time when they may have acted unethically. We studied students enrolled in a seminar class who were required to attend both the research ethics and cancer patient seminars. We split the students into two groups to evaluate whether priming the students with the emotional patient connection would change the way they internalized the following week’s ethics class compared to the control group who attended the ethics class before meeting the cancer patients. We found that there was no change in the ability of our students to clearly describe and analyze an example of ethical/unethical behavior from their own lives. However, we found that the emotionally primed group was nearly twice as likely to mention the downstream consequences of their actions, an emotional response to the actions they took, or to take responsibility for their actions. These results indicate that the emotional priming of meeting the people potentially impacted by their decisions prompted deeper self-reflection and possible deeper integration of the ethics instruction. Further studies are needed to evaluate whether this effect can be strengthened to the point that it might be detected on the bioethics survey. Possible improvements include an extended workshop to provide more time to practice ethical decision making, and creating a more explicit connection between the patient encounter and ethics seminar.

Earle, A. J., & Nishimura, N., & Smith, I., & Small, D. M. (2021, July), Enhancing the Teaching of Research Ethics Through Emotional Priming with Encounters with Patients and Reflection Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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