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Where Should We Begin? Establishing a Baseline for First-year Student Awareness of Engineering Ethics

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Engineering Ethics Division Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Natalie C.T. Van Tyne Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Natalie Van Tyne is an Associate Professor of Practice at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where she teaches first year engineering design as a foundation courses for Virginia Tech's undergraduate engineering degree programs. She holds bachelors and masters degrees from Rutgers University, Lehigh University and Colorado School of Mines, and studies best practices in pedagogy, reflective learning and critical thinking to inform enhanced student knowledge retention and retrieval.

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Ingrid St. Omer Virginia Tech

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Dr. Ingrid St. Omer is Senior Instructor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. She was formerly an Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky in the department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. She was the Co-Principal Investigator for the ten institution Kentucky – West Virginia Alliance for Minority Participation. Prior to earning her doctorate, she worked in industry at Rosemount Inc., attaining the rank of Senior Engineer and Engineering Supervisor. Upon completion of her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU), she served as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the MU Department of Electrical Engineering, a Research Associate and President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota, and as an Assistant Professor and Director of the Advanced Microelectronics Laboratory at Northern Arizona University. Dr. St. Omer is an active member of IEEE, MRS, ASEE, and NSBE AE. She has also held several leadership positions at the national level during her academic career.

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Where Should We Begin? Establishing a Baseline for First Year Student Awareness of Engineering Ethics Abstract The first year engineering design course at a research institution in the southeastern United States contains a unit in engineering ethics, most recently using an assignment to compare two cases of corporate neglect resulting in major damages, where one company paid a fine and the other did not. The students’ essays enabled us to study their ability to exercise reflective judgement through these research questions: “How extensively can first year students apply the reflective judgement skills identified by King and Kitchener to the process of ethical decision making?” and “What aspects of the ABET Code of Ethics of Engineers are most meaningful to first year students?” Sooner or later, nearly all engineers can expect to encounter problems in their workplace related to conflicting conditions, interests, and beliefs, for which there is no one correct solution, but a variety of available solutions from which to choose. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) identifies it as a learning outcome for accreditation. [1] Recently revised ABET standards for accreditation continue to include the importance of engineers’ ethical and professional responsibilities. [2] However, first year engineering students may not yet have the necessary knowledge or experience to deal with the often ambiguous or partially known nature of problems involving ethical judgement in an objective manner. One way to build this experience is to introduce engineering ethics in the first year, with case study descriptions and prompts for ethical decisions supported by available evidence. Our evidence was obtained from related reference materials along with students’ interpretations of a code of engineering ethics. The learning outcome is awareness of professional ethics, enhanced by reflective judgement, both of which are necessary for informed decision-making. (King and Kitchener, 1994) “Reflective judgement” is a series of cognitive stages from absolute certainty to probabilistic certainty based on the weight of available evidence and recognition of the legitimacy of alternative views. (King and Kitchener, 1994). Student responses, in the form of phrases within sentences, were coded once using King and Kitchener’s Reflective Judgement Model, along with keywords from the ABET Code of Ethics for Engineers.[4] Preliminary results revealed that many responses fell within the middle levels of the 7-level scale, with the most frequently mentioned keywords from the ABET Code being safety, health, public welfare, honesty and integrity. Many students regarded the ABET Code as a law, and stated that the company should be fined for violating it. Others considered the context of the two cases more closely, providing additional evidence of intentional neglect vs. human error, and recognized the views of two or more stakeholders in addition to their own perception of each case. [1] Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, "Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs," 1 November 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30 April 2017]. [2] Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, "ENGINEERING ACCREDITATION COMMISSION, Comparison of Proposal Submitted in 2015 to Proposal Submitted in 2016," 2017. [Online]. Available: [3] P. K. King, "The Reflective Judgement Stages," 12 October 1994. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01 June 2016]. [4] Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, "ABET Code of Ethics of Engineers," 1997. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30 April 2017].

Van Tyne, N. C., & St. Omer, I. (2018, June), Where Should We Begin? Establishing a Baseline for First-year Student Awareness of Engineering Ethics Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31241

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