Collaborative Research: Foundations of Social and Ethical Responsibility Among Undergraduate Engineering Students:Comparing Across Time Institutions

Project: Research project

Project Details


Collaborative Research: Foundations of Social and Ethical Responsibility Among Undergraduate Engineering Students:Comparing Across Time Institutions Collaborative Research: Foundations of Social and Ethical Responsibility Among Undergraduate Engineering Students: Comparing Across Time, Institutions, and Interventions Recognizing the critical roles played by technical professionals in serving the public and solving some of the worlds biggest challenges, many stakeholders continue to advocate for intensified ethics training for current and future engineers. In response, numerous formal courses and programs have been created to promote high levels of professional responsibility and ethical integrity among engineering graduates. Still other kinds of interventions (e.g., service learning programs) have been developed to more broadly challenge engineers-in-training to see themselves as engaged citizens and community members. However, there has been a lack of empirical research on foundational measures and understandings of social and ethical responsibility among undergraduate engineering students. Further, relatively few studies have looked in-depth at how such perceptions change over time, including in relation to various kinds of formal and informal learning experiences. Without such research, faculty and administrators often have little more than anecdotal evidence about how their curricula and programs are impacting students. A small but growing body of research also suggests that such impacts may be blunted by pervasive cultures of disengagement in many engineering schools. The proposed study responds to these gaps and unknowns in the extant body of research and practice by investigating two main research questions: RQ1) What do engineering students perceive as responsible (and irresponsible) professional conduct, and what do they perceive as socially just (and unjust) technical practices?, and RQ2) How do foundational measures and understandings of social and ethical responsibility change during a four-year engineering degree program, both in general and in relation to specific kinds of formal and informal learning experiences? To investigate these questions, a longitudinal mixed-methods study design will collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data from undergraduate engineering students at four universities. To improve transferability of results, the target schools will represent a variety of institution types, including public research-intensive, private research-intensive, and public undergraduate-serving. Additionally, each of the collaborating schools has large numbers of students who participate in programs of particular interest for this study, including service-learning experiences and intensified courses of ethics instruction. The first study phase (Year 1) will begin with large-scale surveys of first-semester engineering students (n=1000 total) to collect demographic information and various foundational measures of social and ethical responsibility. Efforts will be made to secure a gender- and ethnic-diverse sample. This data will then be used to recruit 20-25 students at each school (80-100 total) for semi-structured interviews focused on RQ1. Interviewees will be stratified among students who will likely have: 1) a traditional technical focus, 2) curricular service-learning experiences, or 3) intensified ethics instruction. To address RQ1 and RQ2, the second study phase (Year 4) will involve repeat administration of the survey to as many of the original participants as possible in their eighth semester, with a target of 400 total matched pre/post data pairs. Follow-up interviews will also be conducted with as many original interviewees as possible, with a goal of 40-60 total matched interview pairs. By comparing data from each study phase, the investigators will have strong evidence regarding how student perceptions of social and ethical responsibility change from the beginning to end of a four-year degree, including through relevant curricular interventions, and in relation to the partially distinct institutional contexts and cultures in which the students are situated. Intellectual Merit: The proposed research is based on an ambitious yet robust study design, and benefits from an outstanding team of researchers with expertise spanning engineering, engineering education, ethics, and science and technology studies. The study has a sound project management and evaluation plan, and will fill critical gaps in the extant literature on social and ethical responsibility in engineering. Broader Impacts: Findings from the study will have considerable potential to enhance ongoing efforts to cultivate social and ethical responsibility among future engineers. Dissemination efforts will especially focus on identifying and promoting curricular interventions found to be especially effective at cultivating social and ethical responsibility, and providing specific recommendations so new and existing programs can better align their efforts with predominant student views and perceptions. The study design will also give priority to investigating differences in perceptions and experiences among underrepresented groups.
Effective start/end date5/15/154/30/20


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $160,000.00


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