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Exploring the Social Processes of Ethics in Student Engineering Design Teams

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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

Examining Social Ties and Networks

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.743.1 - 26.743.14



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Paper Authors


Megan Kenny Feister Purdue University

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Megan is a fourth year doctoral candidate in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University pursuing a Ph.D. in Organizational Communication with a minor in mixed methods. Her research focuses on engineering education, design, organizational identity, identification and socialization, team communication, innovation, and technology. She is currently working on an NSF grant examining ethical reasoning and decision-making in engineering project teams, and examining the relationship between teams and individuals in engineering design from a social constructionist and social network perspective.

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Carla B. Zoltowski Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Carla B. Zoltowski, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the EPICS Program at Purdue University. She received her B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering and Ph.D. in engineering education, all from Purdue University. She has served as a lecturer in Purdue’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Dr. Zoltowski’s academic and research interests include human-centered design learning and assessment, service-learning, ethical reasoning development and assessment, leadership, and assistive technology.

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Patrice Marie Buzzanell Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Patrice M. Buzzanell is a Professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication and the School of Engineering Education (courtesy) at Purdue University. Editor of three books and author of over 150 articles and chapters, her research centers on the intersections of career, gender communication, leadership, and resilience. Fellow and past president of the International Communication Association, she has received numerous awards for her research, teaching/mentoring, and engagement. She is working on Purdue-ADVANCE initiatives for institutional change, the Transforming Lives Building Global Communities (TLBGC) team in Ghana through EPICS, and individual engineering ethical development and team ethical climate scales as well as everyday negotiations of ethics in design through NSF funding as Co-PI. [Email:]

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David Torres Purdue University


William C. Oakes Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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William (Bill) Oakes is the Director of the EPICS Program and one of the founding faculty members of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He has held courtesy appointments in Mechanical, Environmental and Ecological Engineering as well as Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education. He is a registered professional engineer and on the NSPE board for Professional Engineers in Higher Education. He has been active in ASEE serving in the FPD, CIP and ERM. He is the past chair of the IN/IL section. He is a fellow of the Teaching Academy and listed in the Book of Great Teachers at Purdue University./ He was the first engineering faculty member to receive the national Campus Compact Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service-Learning. He was a co-recipient of the National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education and the recipient of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Educational Excellence Award and the ASEE Chester Carlson Award. He is a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education and the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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The social design of engineering design work: Linking social networks to communicative constitution of organizing in engineering design team work Engineering and engineering design are increasingly recognized as a social activity(Bucciarelli, 2010), and require interaction and collaboration with diverse groups of people. Thisstudy proposes an innovative method for examining the team-based work done in engineeringeducation, including the process of design and the development and handling of issues such asteamwork, leadership, and decision-making that arise in project-based teams. While such issueshave become central in engineering education research, we still have much room for learning andimprovement. For example, while the development and pedagogy surrounding ethics hasbecome a prominent concern, it is still contested, often being taught through the use of casestudies and dilemma scenarios that students often struggle to believe or relate to (Lloyd &Busby, 2003) and failing to be recognized as an everyday occurrence (van de Poel & Verbeek,2006). Similarly, design thinking has been described as “the complex processes of inquiry andlearning that designers perform in a systems context, making decisions as they proceed, oftenworking collaboratively on teams in a social process, and ‘speaking’ several languages with eachother (and to themselves)” (Dym, Agogino, Eris, Frey, and Leifer, 2005), reflecting the complexsocial and communicative processes that need to be unraveled to offer a complete understanding. This paper argues that decision-making and problem solving in design teams can beelucidated by a rigorous examination of the interaction structures that emerge throughout thedesign process and the ethical, leadership, and teamwork issues that arise throughout the courseof the engineering design process. Successful integration of these issues for team-based projectsneeds to be a serious concern for engineering education and requires a naturalistic look at designin practice, rather than reliance on hypotheticals and disasters. To understand these issues, theauthors combine social network analysis with structuration theory to examine the structure ofproject teams while also examining the institutional and contextual factors that contribute toteam climate, and to the development of group norms that affect team interactions. Social network analysis (SNA) is a type of analysis that enables researchers to examinethe relationships among members of a given system or group. The network analysis approachenables researchers to create and analyze the informal communicative patterns and networks thatunderlie the formal organizational structure (Monge & Eisenberg, 1987). In contrast to the“organizational chart” that might show how communication is supposed to flow within theorganization, network analysis shows the actual communication and relationships that emergewithin the organization or team. Structuration accounts for the influence of institutional factorssuch as rules or norms of what is “acceptable” or “appropriate” behavior within a specific socialcontext, while also affording the actors within that context agency to enact influence on thosestructural influences. This theory envisions a reflexive relationship in which institutionalinfluences constrain and enable individual activity, while individual activity reinforces thesestructures and shapes them over time. Network analysis provides a concrete visualization of thisrelationship, showing the relational patterns of individuals to both identify local structuralproperties and utilize these properties to help predict and explain changes in the networkstructure (Whitbred et al., 2011). This approach enables us to examine the structure of projectteams while also examining the institutional and contextual factors that contribute to teamclimate, and to the development of group norms that affect team interactions. As part of a larger study, this paper examines one project team’s interactions andperceptions of the design process as it relates to design-related decision-making and ethics byexamining data from the social network survey and limited interviews. Through this mixed-methods approach, we specifically probe how the informal communicative patterns that emergein a team surrounding technical and programmatic knowledge, ethical concerns, trust, andfriendship, relate to effective decision-making and conceptualization of design work, as well asteam members’ understanding of teamwork and leadership. In addition to presenting the resultsfrom this project, this paper describes an innovative method to examine design in engineeringeducation, and to provide detailed insight into the social processes underlying engineeringdesign.

Kenny Feister, M., & Zoltowski, C. B., & Buzzanell, P. M., & Torres, D., & Oakes, W. C. (2015, June), Exploring the Social Processes of Ethics in Student Engineering Design Teams Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24080

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