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Understanding of Social Responsibility by First Year Engineering Students: Ethical Foundations and Courses

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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

Teaching Approaches for Ethics

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1291.1 - 24.1291.27



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Paper Authors


Gregory A. Rulifson University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Greg Rulifson is a doctoral student in Civil Engineering focusing his research on engineering education. Greg earned a bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice from UC Berkeley and earned a master's degree in structural engineering from Stanford University. His current research focuses on understanding engineering students' conceptions of social responsibility, how engineering service is valued in the professional world, as well as how faculty can be facilitated to engage students in engineering service more effectively.

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Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado, Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt, Ph.D., P.E., is a Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, & Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has been on the faculty since 1996. She serves as the ABET Assessment Coordinator for the Department. Professor Bielefeldt teaches introductory courses for first year engineering students, senior capstone design, and environmental engineering specialty courses. She conducts engineering education research related to learning through service (LTS), social responsibility, sustainability, ethics, and globalization.

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Whitney Thomas University of Colorado, Boulder

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Understanding of Social Responsibility by First Year Engineering Students: Ethical Foundations and Courses Engineering Ethics DivisionEngineers play a significant role in society. But the extent to which students consider this role asa desirable career attribute and extend their beliefs about the social responsibility of engineersbeyond basic ethical foundations is not fully understood. A qualitative study was completed tounderstand how first year engineering students define social responsibility and how it relates toengineering.Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 34 first year engineering students.The students were initially majoring in civil, environmental, mechanical, or undeclaredengineering at one of four American universities. The interviews were conducted between Apriland June, 2013. As part of a 30 to 60 minute interview the students were asked to describeexperiences in life prior to college or during college that influenced their view of socialresponsibility. They were also asked how confident they were that they will get an engineeringdegree and practice engineering after graduation. Open coding methods were used to analyze theinterview transcripts for themes. The three authors co-developed a code book based on a sub-setof 13 interviews (5 per person with 1 in common for all three readers). Inter-rater reliability wasestablished on a sub-set of five of the interviews. Then a single individual coded all of theinterviews.Results: The interviews revealed that some students had thought extensively about socialresponsibility while others had not really considered it before and struggled to define it. Studentsdefined social responsibility in a variety of ways. On the personal side, students talked ofpersonal obligations to help others, making society better, charity, and working to alleviateglobal inequalities. On the professional side, students discussed ethical behavior, sharingknowledge/talents with others, and a responsibility to pay back society for its investment in theireducation.Students described that their sense of social responsibility largely derived from familyinfluences, religion, previous volunteer and/or community service activities, and travel abroad.In college, students discussed learning about ethics in the introduction to engineering courses,service-learning projects in courses, humanities/social science electives, and extracurricularactivities such as Engineers Without Borders.Social responsibility seemed to be perceived differently by the students in relation toengineering. Some students did not seem to relate an engineering career to social responsibility.Others seemed to believe that societal benefits was a positive attribute of engineering but not aclear motivation for choosing to major in engineering. In other cases, students were primarilymotivated toward engineering due to its potential to benefit society. And in a few cases, studentswith a very strong sense of social responsibility were leaving engineering to other majors.The paper will provide examples of these themes in the words of the students and discussimplications for the design of first year engineering courses that foster a sense of socialresponsibility in engineering students and help retain those most motivated by it.

Rulifson, G. A., & Bielefeldt, A. R., & Thomas, W. (2014, June), Understanding of Social Responsibility by First Year Engineering Students: Ethical Foundations and Courses Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23224

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