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Teaching and Assessment of “Ethics in Engineering Practice”

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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

Engineering Ethics and Justice

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1372.1 - 22.1372.8



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Paper Authors


Rodney W. Trice Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Rodney W. Trice joined the faculty of Purdue University as an Assistant Professor in August 2000 after completing a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship at Northwestern University. His research there focused on investigating the processing–structure–property relationships of plasma–sprayed coatings using mechanical testing and transmission electron microscopy. Prior to Northwestern, Rodney received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan (1997) where he studied the high temperature properties of a ceramic composite made via ceramic-loaded polymer extrusion methods. From 1989 through 1995, he worked in the defense industry, employed at Lockheed Martin and later Northrop Grumman. He received his Master’s degree in 1989 (Materials Science) and his B.S. degree in 1987 (Mechanical Engineering) from the University of Texas at Arlington. He has 24 years of mechanical testing experience on ceramics, metals, and polymers – most of it performed at elevated temperatures. He also has extensive background in the manufacturing of advanced ceramics via powder processing and plasma-spray techniques. Two current NSF grants fund his research. One grant focuses on developing next-generation thermal barrier coatings for gas turbine applications. The second grant is developing ceramic forming techniques for ultra-high temperature ceramics such as ZrB2. He is also investigating hot corrosion of Ni-based superalloys in collaboration with Rolls-Royce.

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Teaching and Assessment of “Ethics in Engineering Practice” Prof. Rodney Trice, Prof. Matthew Krane, School of Materials Engineering Purdue University, West Lafayette, INWithin the engineering and scientific community, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of actingwith high ethical standards in global, social, intellectual and technological contexts. According to a 1999article by Stephan,1 nearly three-quarters of the engineering programs in the U.S. allow at least somestudents to graduate without taking a course whose catalog description mentions ethics. The College ofEngineering at Purdue University fall into this category. Within this context, a new semester length ethicscourse designed to teach ethics to junior and senior engineering students at Purdue University has beendeveloped. The objective of the course was to demonstrate that exposure to and involvement in an ethicscourse specifically designed for engineers can mature the moral reasoning skills of those students whoparticipate.In designing our course, we drew upon the observations of Haws2 in his meta-analysis of 42 paperspresented from 1996-1999 at American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conferences. Each ofthe papers he analyzed treated engineering ethics as a coherent educational objective. He noted sixpedagogical approaches to teaching this class, including discussion of the professional engineer’s code ofethics, humanist readings, theoretical grounding, ethical heuristics, case studies, and service learning. Weused three of these approaches in the proposed class. Section I grounded the students in ethical theory.Haws2 noted in his article that not grounding students in ethical theory is “probably the greatest singleweakness in engineering ethics instruction.” The remaining part of the course utilized faculty-led (SectionII) and student-led case studies (Section III) to continue to mature their moral reasoning skills.In Section I we presented the three basic ethical systems: consequentialist, principled, and virtue-basedethics. We also applied the ethical theories taught in Section I to topics including risk and reliability, trustand loyalty, organization culture and its influence on decision making (including the role of authority) andresearch fraud. Readings from texts and the archival literature on ethics specifically in engineeringpractice were also used to supplement lectures. For Section II of the course five case studies weredeveloped and presented by the faculty. In Section III of the course, student groups gave presentations onseveral high-profile engineering failures with potential ethical components. In addition to the student-ledgroup case studies, we also gave various writing assignments, a midterm exam, and required the studentsto keep a journal of their writing assignments.We measured the progress of moral reasoning skills using the Defining Issues Test (DIT2). Theassessment was given during the second and the penultimate lectures to assess changes in moral reasoningafter completing the course.3 This test presented five moral dilemmas, each followed by 12 issuestatements. In a 1998 paper, Self et al.4 assessed student’s moral reasoning using the DIT in a mannersimilar to our method, and measured statistical differences in reasoning skills before and after beingtaught some ethics content. They concluded that the effect of teaching ethics in engineering can be“rigorously measured.” The DIT2 test has been used extensively and correlations with educational levelshave been noted. 5 Senior high students average in the 30s, college students in the 40s, students graduatingfrom professional schools in the 50s, and Moral Philosophy doctoral students in the 60s.The N2 score is reported presently; the N2 is comprised of two parts to include the degree to whichrespondents demonstrate more sophisticated thinking and the degree to which respondents reject 1simplistic or biased thinking when faced with moral dilemmas.6 The average “pre-class” N2 score was40±13. This small student sample correlates very well with the N2 scores for first year college students ina large multi-university study. They measured N2 scores of 41±15.6 After taking the course, wemeasured a N2 score of 51±11, indicating substantial improvement in their moral reasoning ability asdefined by the DIT2 test. It was noted that 17 of the 19 students demonstrated an increase in their moralreasoning skills; improvements ranged from a statistically insignificant value of 1 through a moreimpressive increase of 28. Furthermore, the number of students scoring at the same education level asgraduating from a professional school (N2 score of 50 or higher) jumped from 5 pre-class to 12 post-class.1 Karl D. Stephan, “A Survey of Ethics-Related Instruction in U.S. Engineering Programs,” J.Eng. Ed., 10 459-64 (1999).2 David Haws, “Ethics Instruction in Engineering Education: A (Mini) Meta-Analysis,” J. Eng.Ed, 4 223-9 (2001).3 Developed by James Rest; See the Center for the Study of Ethical Development, University ofMinnesota; D. J. Self, and E. M. Ellison, “Teaching Engineering Ethics: Assessment of its Influence onMoral Reasoning Skills,” J. Eng. Education, 87 [1] 29-34 (1998).5 Guide for DIT-2 Test, provided by the Center for the Study of Ethical Development6 M. J. Mayhew, T.A. Seifert, and E.T. Pascarella, “A Multi-Institutional Assessment of MoralReasoning Development Among First Year Students,” The Review of Higher Education, Spring2010, 33 [3] 357-390. 2

Trice, R. W. (2011, June), Teaching and Assessment of “Ethics in Engineering Practice” Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18597

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