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The Test Of Ethical Sensitivity In Science And Engineering (Tesse): A Discipline Specific Assessment Tool For Awareness Of Ethical Issues

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics III

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1270.1 - 13.1270.10



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Paper Authors

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Jason Borenstein Georgia Tech

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Matthew Drake Duquesne University

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Robert Kirkman Georgia Institute of Technology

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Julie Swann Georgia Tech

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The Test of Ethical Sensitivity in Science and Engineering (TESSE): A Discipline-Specific Assessment Tool for Awareness of Ethical Issues

I. Introduction

There has been much written about the need for integrating ethics into the science and engineering curriculum. Efforts to accomplish this task are ongoing. However, assessing the effectiveness of ethics education programs generally, not just in science and engineering, has proven to be a rather daunting task.

Many of the attempts at assessment have made use of the Defining Issues Test (DIT), an instrument that measures moral reasoning based on Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.[1] Briefly put, the DIT elicits subjects’ responses to moral dilemmas and sorts those responses according to three types of moral reasoning: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. A subject’s responses are scored on the simple prevalence of postconventional reasoning, which involves reflecting on universal principles that apply to all of humanity, and also the prevalence of postconventional reasoning relative to the prevalence of preconventional reasoning, which corresponds to self-interest and the avoidance of punishment. Although there is scholarly debate about the merits of the DIT, among its advantages are that it is scalable and promises a quantitative measure of the effectiveness of ethics education.

Our own use of the second edition of the test (DIT-2) to compare different modes of ethics instruction at the Georgia Institute of Technology yielded troubling results: in a quasi- experimental study with pre- and post-tests and a control group, we found no statistically significant change in students’ moral reasoning over a semester, even for those students who took a full course in engineering ethics.[2]

What the study did not tell us was whether this result was due to the ineffectiveness of ethics pedagogy or a shortcoming in the testing instrument. For a variety of reasons, we launched an investigation into the latter possibility. One option to consider is that the DIT-2 might be too general a measure of moral reasoning to capture the kinds of changes likely to be brought about by ethics instruction tailored to technical disciplines. Thus, we designed a new instrument for measuring moral reasoning that is patterned after the DIT-2, but with cases drawn from engineering and research contexts. We are still gathering data and analyzing the preliminary results from that instrument.[3]

At the same time, we considered the possibility that both the DIT-2 and our homegrown instrument were measuring the wrong thing. Following the research of those involved in developing the DIT-2, we note that moral judgment is only one component of ethical experience and conduct.[4] Along these lines, it is possible that instead of moral judgment, the primary benefit of ethics education may be that it enhances ethical sensitivity, the ability to identify and recognize relevant ethical issues emerging from a situation.

Consider, for example, the classic case in which a vendor offers a gift to an engineer who has authority in the hiring of vendors at a particular firm. To the practiced eye, accepting the gift would very likely bring the engineer into a potential conflict of interest. Yet students sometimes

Borenstein, J., & Drake, M., & Kirkman, R., & Swann, J. (2008, June), The Test Of Ethical Sensitivity In Science And Engineering (Tesse): A Discipline Specific Assessment Tool For Awareness Of Ethical Issues Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3253

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