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Athena Lin, Purdue University, The USA

The goal of engineering ethics education is to prepare students to become ethical engineers when they graduate 1. As educators of future engineers, we are concerned with questions such as: How do we prepare students to act ethically as practicing engineers? What can we teach students that will prepare them to act ethically as practicing engineers? How will we know how effective our teaching is? As with other skills we aim to teach students, the true test of whether we are successful in cultivating ethical behaviors will not manifest until students are beyond our reach in their future careers and lives. Is there anything that we can teach them and assess in college that will give an indication of future ethical practice?  

Though promoting ethical behaviors is a worthy goal for engineering ethics education, it is difficult to develop and measure behavioral outcomes. Ethical behaviors are challenging to measure directly and even more challenging to predict. As a result, it is not surprising that learning outcomes such as ethical awareness and reasoning have dominated engineering ethics education (Bairaktarova & Woodcock, 2017; Hess & Fore, 2018) 2,3. It is much more straightforward to assess whether a student can identify an ethical issue or analyze an ethical dilemma than whether they are likely to act upon an ethical decision.  

While ethical knowledge and reasoning are important competencies for students to develop, alone, they are insufficient for promoting ethical behavior (Rest, 1984). Even if students can recognize the ethical issues of a situation and deduce an ethical decision, they may fail to be motivated or capable of acting upon their decision. Thus, preparing students for ethical engineering practice cannot be achieved by solely focusing on cultivating ethical attitudes and reasoning skills. Thus, we should broaden what we teach and assess in engineering ethics education to include outcomes aimed at fostering ethical behaviors (Clancy & Zhu, 2023).   

To develop these outcomes, we need to understand what ethical behaviors look like in practice. There is currently a lack of consensus within engineering ethics education on how to define engineering ethics or what constitutes ethical engineering practice. This contributes to ambiguity around what specific behaviors are considered ethical in engineering, which is the gap that my dissertation research aims to address. 

The goal of my dissertation study is to understand and identify what ethical behaviors are in engineering by exploring questions such as: How are ethical behaviors distinguished from other normative behaviors or best practices in engineering? What makes a “good” engineering practice also an ethical behavior? For example, maintaining a meticulous lab notebook is considered good practice, but when is it also an ethical practice? In my dissertation study, I ask questions of this nature to a panel of researchers, educators, and practicing engineers who have experiences related to engineering ethics. Through an iterative process, I invite them to share their insights and debate their opinions with other panelists. The intended outcome of this process is for the panel to build consensus on what kinds of behaviors are generally considered ethical in engineering. By bringing clarity to what constitutes ethical behaviors in engineering practice, I hope this work can help us develop approaches to educating future engineers that will prepare them to act ethically in their careers. 

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