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Sustainability Ethics Among First-Year Civil and Environmental Engineering Students

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Sustainability and Humanitarian Engineering

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1359.1 - 22.1359.18

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Paper Authors


Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado, Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt, Ph.D., P.E., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, & Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). She has been teaching engineering ethics as part of the first-year course for civil engineering students since 1997 and for environmental engineering students since 2006. She has served as the Chair of the ASEE Environmental Engineering Division. Her research interests in engineering education include service learning, sustainability, and women in engineering.

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Sustainability Ethics among First-Year Civil and Environmental Engineering StudentsAbstractThe NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers states that engineers are “encouraged to adhere to theprinciples of sustainable development in order to protect the environment for future generations”(NSPE III.2.D). Thus, ethical engineering requires an understanding of sustainability and itsapplication. Both sustainability and ethics are key learning objectives in first year courses forCivil (CVEN) and Environmental (EVEN) engineering at ___ . This research tracked studentattitudes and knowledge about ethics and sustainability during these first-semester courses, usingsurvey questions and homework as assessment methods. The research attempts to determine ifstudent interest and competency in ethics and sustainability are correlated. Assessment ofstudents in the fall 2010 courses is on-going; historic data from previous semesters is available. On the first homework assignment, the students were asked to indicate the five mostimportant skills for civil or environmental engineers. As references, the students were providedwith the Body of Knowledge for Civil or Environmental Engineering (ASCE and AAEE,respectively) and the ABET A-K outcomes. Of 55 responses from the civil engineering course,40% of the students included ethics in their top 5 (the 4th highest ranked item), compared to 24%sustainability (the 8th highest ranked item). Of 79 environmental engineering students, 27%included ethics in their top 5 (the 8th highest ranked item), compared to only 11% sustainability(the 14th highest ranked item). Only 1 CVEN and 2 EVEN students ranked both ethics andsustainability in their top 5; so minimal correlation is evident although many students rankedeither topic as critical elements for CVEN and EVEN. The second topic of the semester was a sustainability module, which included twolectures and a homework assignment. The lectures included some Clicker questions thatgathered data regarding student attitudes about sustainability at the beginning of the first lectureand throughout the classes. The homework required the students to define sustainability,comment on the sustainable development principles of the Royal Academy of Engineering andHannover Principles, and identify sustainability elements within engineering projects. For thesustainability definition in the civil engineering class, 100% of the students included societalaspects, 1 student (of 57) was missing environmental aspects in their definition, 7 students onlyweakly included economic aspects, and 3 students did not include future aspects. For thesustainability definition in the environmental engineering class, the strongest elements wereenvironmental (only 1% missing, 6% weak), societal (3% missing, 8% weak), and economic (3%missing, 9% weak); many students did not include future considerations in their sustainabilitydefinition (36% missing, 6% weak). For the case study, the sustainability elements were scoredusing a rubric from 0 to 3, and the average scores of the civil engineering students for societal,economic, and environmental aspects were 2.43, 2.39, and 2.37, respectively; the scores for theenvironmental engineering students were somewhat higher averaging 2.84, 2.81, and 2.75,respectively [but different student graders could account for these small differences, as inter-raterreliability of the data has yet to be established]. Only 5 of the 57 students in the civil engineeringclass and 3 of 78 students in the environmental engineering class included ethics somewhere intheir sustainability discussion. The fourth unit in the semester in both courses discussed ethics. First, studentscompleted an optional extra credit survey about student behaviors that may/may not be cheatingor unethical, based on 18 questions from the PACES-1 survey. Then the students participated ina module on engineering ethics, and completed a homework assignment on ethics. Theassignment allowed the students to learn about one “moral exemplar” from the Online Ethicswebsite; some of these individuals can be considered to epitomize sustainability ethics (i.e. FredCuny, Rachel Carson, Inez Austin). The ethics assignments will be analyzed in detail (similar tothe sustainability results), and linkages between sustainability and ethics, and correlationsbetween students’ performance on the two assignments will be compared. In 2009, 38% ofCVEN and 26% of the EVEN students included the term(s) sustainable or sustainabilitysomewhere in their ethics assignment. At the end of the semester the students will be required to write reflective essays aboutthe engineering profession; content analysis of the essays will be conducted to evaluate attitudesabout ethics and sustainability. A similar content analysis of the 2009 essays found that amongthe environmental engineering students 80% and 70% discussed sustainability and ethics,respectively; 59% discussed both indicating a potential correlation of interest in these topics. Forthe civil engineering students in 2009, 52% and 86% discussed sustainability and ethics,respectively; 45% discussed both topics, again showing a correlation of interest. Seeing theethical imperative for sustainability may help the students to solidify these aspects into the coreof their definition and identity of engineering. These elements may attract and retain someindividuals in engineering, although further research is needed to confirm or refute thishypothesis.

Bielefeldt, A. R. (2011, June), Sustainability Ethics Among First-Year Civil and Environmental Engineering Students Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.

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