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How Engineering Students View Dilemmas of Macroethics: Links between Depth of Knowledge and Ethical Literacy

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Understanding our Students & Ethical Development

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.674.1 - 24.674.21



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Paper Authors


Denise Wilson University of Washington

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Denise Wilson received the B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, Stanford, CA, in 1988 and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, in 1989 and 1995, respectively. She received the M.Ed. from the University of Washington in 2008. She is currently an Associate Professor with the Electrical Engineering Department, University of Washington, Seattle, and she was previously with the University of Kentucky, Lexington, in a similar position from 1996 to 1999. Her research interests in engineering education focus on the role of belonging, self-efficacy, and other non-cognitive factors on success and persistence. She is also managing director of Coming Alongside, a non-profit environmental health services organization.

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Mee Joo Kim University of Washington-Seattle

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Mee Joo Kim is a doctoral student at University of Washington-Seattle. Her research interests focus on global citizenship development of undergraduate STEM student populations.

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Rebecca A. Bates Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Rebecca A. Bates received the Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington in 2004. She also received the M.T.S. degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1993. She is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Integrated Engineering program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, home of the Iron Range and Twin Cities Engineering programs.

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Elizabeth Burpee

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In addition to her engineering education research, Elizabeth Burpee, MPH/MSW, has also worked with non-profit organizations as a community organizer and program evaluation manager.

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ASEE  2014:    Ethics  Division   How Engineering Students view Dilemmas of Macroethics: Links between Depth of Knowledge and Ethical LiteracyThe need to develop ethical literacy among engineering students goes well beyondcommunicating a basic knowledge of professional ethics codes. One way of looking at andassessing a student’s ability to consider and evaluate ethical issues is by assessing the student’swriting regarding challenging topics, both in microethics and macroethics. In the context oftechnical writing, Cook (2002) defines two layers of literacy that are involved in consideringethics. Ethical Literacy reflects both knowledge of professional ethical standards (e.g., codes ofethics), as well as an ability to consider all stakeholders involved. At a more advanced level,Critical Literacy reflects “an ability to recognize and consider ideological stances and powerstructures and the willingness to take action to assist those in need” (Cook 2002).We have used Cook’s layered literacies framework to create a rubric for assessing studentwriting on macroethics dilemmas. We have applied this rubric to over 150 writing samplesfrom introductory engineering classes at two higher education institutions in the United States,the first a large public teaching university in the midwest and the second a large public researchuniversity in the pacific northwest. Specifically, students were asked to read a journal article onwaste electronics and recycling in China and India, then write a reflection paper that (a) speaksto the most important negative impacts of waste electronics on ecosystems and public health,and (b) provides a personal opinion on what the student believes is the engineer’s responsibilityin limiting the impact of improper disposal of consumer electronics. Assessments of ethicaland critical literacy in these writing samples were then compared with the depth of knowledgeexpressed in each paper where depth of global knowledge was evaluated using the modelprovided by Webb (2005) which identifies four increasingly sophisticated levels of knowledge:(1) recall (recall elements and details of events), (2) skill/concept (identify and summarize themajor events in a narrative), (3) strategic thinking (support ideas with details and examples),and (4) extended thinking (analyze the events and report solutions).Preliminary analyses indicate that depth of knowledge, specifically expressed in the richness ofdetails and facts underlying the global issue of waste electronics and recycling, bears a strongassociation with ethical literacy. In other words, it appears that students who are able,motivated, or both to gather more complex suites of detailed facts to support their ethicalarguments are also able to express more advanced ethical literacy in issues of macroethics.These results suggest that by providing students with more structure for and access to gatheringand synthesizing facts relevant to macroethics issues, instructors can more readily advance theethical literacy expressed by these students.Cook, K. C. (2002). Layered literacies: A theoretical frame for technical communication pedagogy. Technical Communication Quarterly, 11(1), 5-29.Webb, N. L., Alt, M., Ely, R., & Vesperman, B. (2005). Web alignment tool: Training manual. Wisconsin Center of Educational Research. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2 Feb. 2006. .

Wilson, D., & Kim, M. J., & Bates, R. A., & Burpee, E. (2014, June), How Engineering Students View Dilemmas of Macroethics: Links between Depth of Knowledge and Ethical Literacy Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20565

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