Skip to main content

Senior Engineering Students’ Reflection on Their Learning of Ethics and Morality: A Qualitative Investigation of Influences and Lessons Learned

Abstract

Informed by ABET accreditation criteria and broader societal needs, ethics has been emphasized as important for engineering professionals. Engineering students are thus exposed to professional ethics and related concerns throughout their college experiences both within and beyond the formal engineering curriculum, but little is known about what learning experiences and lessons engineering students view as most memorable and salient as they approach graduation. Therefore, this paper answers the following research questions: RQ1) What types of experiences do senior engineering students report as salient learning experiences for their ethical and moral formation as they approach graduation? and RQ2) What do students learn from the most commonly discussed types of experiences? To address these questions, we conducted semi-structured interviews with senior engineering students (n=33) and performed inductive thematic analysis on the resulting transcripts. Among various types of experiences that students reported as influencing their ethical and moral perspectives, this paper highlights work experiences, formal education, and family environment as the most frequently mentioned. Our results suggest that work experiences were especially significant for students’ learning of engineering ethics in a professional context, followed by academic experiences as a source of both professional/ethical and more general moral lessons. Many students also described family and friends as influential, especially as related to their general perceptions of morality. Based on these findings, a variety of educational implications are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1.

References

  • ABET. 2006. Engineering change: A study of the impact of EC2000. Baltimore, MD.

  • ABET. 2019. Criteria for accrediting engineering programs. https://www.abet.org/accreditation/accreditation-criteria/criteria-for-accrediting-engineering-programs-2019-2020/

  • Beever, J., and A.O. Brightman. 2016. Reflexive principlism as an effective approach for developing ethical reasoning in engineering. Science and Engineering Ethics 22: 275–291.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beever, J., and L.A. Pinkert. 2019. Work-in-progress: Preliminary results from a survey of moral foundations across engineering subdisciplines. Proceedings of the 2019 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition.

  • Berdanier, C.G.P., X. Tang, and M.F. Cox. 2018. Ethics and sustainability in global contexts: Studying engineering student perspectives through photoelicitation. Journal of Engineering Education 107 (2): 238–262.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Berkowitz, M.W., and J.H. Grych. 1998. Fostering goodness: Teaching parents to facilitate children’s moral development. Journal of Moral Education 27 (3): 371–391.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bertram Gallant, T., L. Van Den Einde, S. Ouellette, and S. Lee. 2014. A systematic analysis of cheating in an undergraduate engineering mechanics course. Science and Engineering Ethics 20: 277–298.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bielefeldt, A.R., and N.E. Canney. 2014. Impacts of service-learning on the professional social responsibility attitudes of engineering students. International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering 9 (2): 47–63.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bielefeldt, A.R., and N.E. Canney. 2016a. Changes in the social responsibility attitudes of engineering students over time. Science and Engineering Ethics 22: 1535–1551.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bielefeldt, A.R., and N.E. Canney. 2016b. Relationships between religion, spirituality, and socially responsible engineering. Engineering Studies 8 (1): 66–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bielefeldt, A.R., J. Lewis, M. Polmear, D. Knight, N. Canney, and C. Swan. 2020. Educating civil engineering students about ethics and societal impacts via cocurricular activities. Journal of Civil Engineering Education, 146 (4). https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)EI.2643-9115.0000021.

  • Bielefeldt, A. R., Polmear, M., Knight, D., Canney, N. E., & Swan, C. 2017. Incorporation of ethics and societal impact issues into senior capstone design courses: Results of a national survey. Proceedings of the 2017 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Columbus, OH.

  • Bielefeldt, A.R., Polmear, M., Knight, D., Swan, C., & Canney, N. E. 2018. Education of electrical engineering students about ethics and societal impacts in courses and co-curricular activities. Proceedings of the 2018 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, San Jose, CA.

  • Bryan, J.H., and P. London. 1970. Altruistic behavior by children. Psychological Bulletin 73: 200–211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burt, B.A., D.D. Carpenter, M.A. Holsapple, C.J. Finelli, R.M. Bielby, J.A. Sutkus, and T.S. Harding. 2013. Out-of-classroom experiences: Bridging the disconnect between the classroom, the engineering workforce, and ethical development. International Journal of Engineering Education 29 (3): 714–725.

    Google Scholar 

  • Catalano, G.D. 2004. Senior capstone design and ethics: A bridge to the professional world. Science and Engineering Ethics 10 (2): 409–415.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chase-Lansdale, P.L., L.S. Wakschlag, and J. Brooks-Gunn. 1995. A psychological perspective on the development of caring in children and youth: The role of the family. Journal of Adolescence 18 (5): 515–556.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clancy, R.F., & H. Hohberger. 2019. The moral foundations of Chinese engineering students: A preliminary investigation. Proceedings of the 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition.

  • Clancy, R.F. 2021. The development of a case-based course on global engineering ethics in China. International Journal of Ethics Education 6: 51–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Davis, M. 2006. Integrating ethics into technical courses: Micro-insertion. Science and Engineering Ethics 12: 717–730.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eyler, J. 1993. Comparing the impact of two internship experiences on student learning. Journal of Cooperative Education 29 (1): 41–52.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eyler, J. 2002. Reflection: Linking service and learning—linking students and communities. Journal of Social Issues 58 (3): 517–534.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Finelli, C.J., M.A. Holsapple, E. Ra, R.M. Bielby, B.A. Burt, D.D. Carpenter, T.S. Harding, and J.A. Sutkus. 2012. An assessment of engineering students’ curricular and co-curricular experiences and their ethical development. Journal of Engineering Education 101 (3): 469–494.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Frey, W.J. 2010. Teaching virtue: Pedagogical implications of moral psychology. Science and Engineering Ethics 16: 611–628.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R. Wojcik, S. P., & Ditto, P. H. 2013. Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. In P. Devine & A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 47 (pp. 55-130). Academic Press.

  • Green, B.A. 1997. The role of personal values in professional decision making. Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 11 (1): 19–60.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grych, J.H., and F.D. Fincham. 1990. Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: A cognitive-contextual framework. Psychological Bulletin 108: 267–290.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Han, H. 2015. Virtue ethics, positive psychology, and a new model of science and engineering ethics education. Science and Engineering Ethics 21: 441–460.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harding, T. S., Carpenter, D. D., Finelli, C. J. 2013. Two years later: A longitudinal look at the impact of engineering ethics education. Proceedings of the 2013 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Atlanta, GA.

  • Harding, T.S., D.D. Carpenter, C.J. Finelli, and H.J. Passow. 2004. Does academic dishonesty relate to unethical behavior in professional practice? An exploratory study. Science and Engineering Ethics 10 (2): 311–324.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hardy, S.A., A. Bhattacharjee, A. Reed, and K. Aquino. 2010. Moral identity and psychological distance: The case of adolescent parental socialization. Journal of Adolescence 33: 111–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harris, C.E. 2008. The good engineer: Giving virtue its due in engineering ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics 14: 153–164.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hazard, G. 1992. Personal values and professional ethics. Cleveland State Law Review 40 (2): 133–142.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hess, J.L., and G. Fore. 2018. A systematic literature review of US engineering ethics interventions. Science and Engineering Ethics 24: 551–583.

    Google Scholar 

  • IEEE. 2020. IEEE Code of Ethics. https://www.ieee.org/content/dam/ieee-org/ieee/web/org/about/corporate/ieee-code-of-ethics.pdf

  • Kim, D., J.L. Hess, and N.D. Fila. 2020. Applying critical incident technique to identify potential causes of changes in ways of experiencing ethical engineering practice. Proceedings of the 2020 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition.

  • Loui, M. 2006. Assessment of an engineering ethics video: Incident at Morales. Journal of Engineering Education 95 (1): 85–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martin, M.W. 2002. Personal meaning and ethics in engineering. Science and Engineering Ethics 8: 545–560.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ma, F., A.D. Evans, Y. Liu, X. Luo, and F. Xu. 2015. To lie or not to lie? The influence of parenting and theory-of-mind understanding on three-year-old children’s honesty. Journal of Moral Education 44 (2): 198–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mayhew, M.J., and P. King. 2008. How curricular content and pedagogical strategies affect moral reasoning development in college students. Journal of Moral Education 37: 17–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Merriam, S.B., and E.J. Tisdell. 2016. Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mones, A.G., and E.L. Haswell. 1998. Morality as a verb: The process of moral development within the “family culture”. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless 7 (2): 91–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nittala, S., T. Zephirin, S.M.J. Howland, D. Kim, A. Katz, and B.K. Jesiek. 2018. Investigating influences on first-year engineering students’ views of ethics and social responsibility. Proceedings of the 2018 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition.

  • NSPE. 2019. Code of Ethics. https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics

  • Pipes, R.B., J.E. Holstein, and M.G. Aguirre. 2005. Examining the personal–professional distinction: Ethics codes and the difficulty of drawing a boundary. American Psychologist 60 (4): 325–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Powers, S.I. 1988. Moral judgment development within the family. Journal of Moral Education 17 (3): 209–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pritchard, M.S. 1998. Professional responsibility: Focusing on the exemplary. Science and Engineering Ethics 4: 215–233.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Reimer, K., and D. Wade-Stein. 2004. Moral identity in adolescence: Self and other in semantic space. Identity 4 (3): 229–249.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, J.A., and P.L. Glanzer. 2017. Building a culture of academic integrity: What students perceive and need. College Student Journal 51 (2): 209–221.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rulifson, G., and A.R. Bielefeldt. 2018. Influence of internships on engineering students’ attitudes about socially responsible engineering. Proceedings of the 2018 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE).

  • Rulifson, G., and A.R. Bielefeldt. 2019. Evolution of students’ varied conceptualizations about socially responsible engineering: A four year longitudinal study. Science and Engineering Ethics 25: 939–974.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • San-Martin, M., E.M. Rivera, A. Alcorta-Garza, and L. Vivanco. 2016. Moral perception, educational environment, and development of medical professionalism in medical students during the clinical rotations in Peru. International Journal of Ethics Education 1: 163–172.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Self, D.J., and E.M. Ellison. 1998. Teaching engineering ethics: Assessment of its influence on moral reasoning skills. Journal of Engineering Education 87 (1): 29–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shuman, L. J., Sindelar, M. F., Besterfield-Sacre, M., Wolfe, H., Pinkus, R. L., Miller, R. L., Olds, B. M., & Mitcham, C. 2004. Can our students recognize and resolve ethical dilemmas? Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, Salt Lake City, Utah.

  • Solnosky, R., and J. Fairchild. 2017. Survey tools for faculty to quickly assess multidisciplinary team dynamics in capstone courses. Advances in Engineering Education 6 (2): 1–32.

    Google Scholar 

  • Speicher, B. 1992. Adolescent moral judgment and perceptions of family interaction. Journal of Family Psychology 6: 128–138.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Speicher, B. 1994. Family patterns of moral judgment during adolescence and early adulthood. Developmental Psychology 30: 624–632.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Talwar, V., & Lee, K. 2011. A punitive environment fosters children’s dishonesty: A natural experiment. Child Development 82: 1751–1758.

  • VanDeGrift, T., H. Dillon, and L. Camp. 2017. Changing the engineering student culture with respect to academic integrity and ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics 23: 1159–1182.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Walker, L.J., and J.H. Taylor. 1991. Family interactions and the development of moral reasoning. Child Development 62: 264–283.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weeks, T.L., and M. Pasupathi. 2009. Autonomy, identity, and narrative construction with parents and friends. In Narrative Development in Adolescence, ed. K.C. McLean and M. Pasupathi, 65–91. New York, NY: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Willson, W.R. 2013. Using the Chernobyl incident to teach engineering ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics 19: 625–640.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zoltowski, C.B., B.K. Jesiek, S.A. Claussen, and D.H. Torres. 2016. Foundations of social and ethical responsibility among undergraduate engineering students: Project overview. Proceedings of the 2016 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition.

Download references

Code availability

Not applicable.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

All authors contributed to the study design and data analysis. The first draft of the manuscript was written by all three authors, and all authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shiloh James Howland.

Ethics declarations

Conflicts of interest/Competing interests

The authors have no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Appendix - Interview protocol

Appendix - Interview protocol

CCE STEM Project - Final Interview Protocol - Spring 2019

Suggested interviewer script: The interview protocol is essentially broken down into four sequential parts:

  1. 1.

    Experience with Ethics

  2. 2.

    General definitions (including macro-ethics)

  3. 3.

    Experiences past, present, and future (including justice)

  4. 4.

    Ethical climate

  5. 5.

    Ethical scenarios

Introduction

To begin, please tell me a little bit about yourself, a 30-second elevator speech about who you are.

1. Would you say you identify as an engineer? Why or why not?

2. What are your main goals as a future engineer/professional?

3. What do you hope to achieve personally and/or professionally over the next 4-5 years?

4. In what ways have your goals been influenced by your experiences here at [student’s university]?

Experience with Ethical and Social Responsibility (Phenomenography)

  1. 1.

    Can you describe an experience you have had with an ethical situation as an individual, student, and/or an aspiring professional?

    1. a.

      What was your role in the situation?

    2. b.

      Who else was involved in this situation? What were their roles?

    3. c.

      How did you approach the situation? Please walk me through the experience.

      1. 1.

        Why did you take that approach?

      2. 2.

        What led you to do things in that way? -OR- How did you decide to do these things?

    4. d.

      What feelings did you experience during this situation? -OR- How did you feel during this situation?

    5. e.

      How did the situation end? Were there any repercussions or long-term implications of the situation? If so, what were they?

  2. 2.

    Have you ever experienced any ethical situation related to engineering?

    1. a.

      Can you briefly describe the situation, including who was involved?

    2. b.

      How does it connect to ethics in engineering? (How is this an example of ethics in engineering?)

    3. c.

      How did you handle the situation?

    4. d.

      Why did you handle it this way?

    5. e.

      What was the outcome?

    6. f.

      What did you learn from this experience/incident?

    7. g.

      Do any other situations come to mind?

General Definition Questions

  1. 1.

    How would you define ethical or moral character?

  2. 2.

    Please identify and describe a person (e.g. someone you know, a historical figure, a famous person, etc.) who you think exemplifies moral character, personal or professional integrity, and/or social responsibility.

    a. Why did you choose that person?

    b. How would you describe their moral character?

    c. How is their character exemplified?

  3. 3.

    What do you think it means for engineers to be ethical or to have high levels of professional integrity?

    a. What kinds of considerations, behaviors, attitudes, etc. are most important for ethical engineers to possess?

    b. What are some examples of situations where engineers face ethical situations in their work?

  4. 4.

    Explore relationship(s) between views on ethics and engineering ethics:

    a. How do ethics, generally, and engineering ethics relate?

    b. You just said XX about ethics and moral character. How does this view impact your beliefs about engineering ethics? Possibly point out when they are inconsistent, and ask them to explain why.

Macro-ethics

  1. 1.

    What professional responsibilities and obligations do you think engineers have to society?

  2. 2.

    What responsibilities do engineers have for the technologies they create?

    a. For example, can you talk about how and why you would/did respond to the following question: Surprising and risky uses or new technologies, such as social networking websites, are completely the responsibility of people who use them.

    A. Strongly Disagree

    B. Disagree

    C. Neither Agree nor Disagree

    D. Agree

    E. Strongly Agree

  3. 3.

    What duties do engineers have to their employers? (Refer back to the survey items 10.9 and 10.10 and ask the following questions)

    a. Before you talked about the duties engineers have to public. What should an engineer do if their duties to the public and their employer conflict?

Experiences, Prior and Future

  1. 1.

    You have indicated that you participated in [xxxx] activities.

(Interviewer note and script: List down all activities that the interviewee has participated in. See responses from Experiences and Demographics” Item #1 and from the interviews. Ask students to select specific activities that they think have shaped their ethical perspectives and explore the following prompts. Repeat as necessary for the other activities)

a. What motivated you to participate in that activity?

b. What is it about that activity that you think has shaped your ethical perspective?

  1. 2.

    Are there any other kinds of experiences that have shaped how you think about ethics and social responsibility—both in general and more specifically in relation to engineering practice? (Interviewer note and script: Additional prompt as needed: Have you participated in any volunteer activities, church programs, travel, special coursework, encounters with family or friends, student clubs, places you’ve lived, places you’ve worked, etc.?)

a. Why did you choose to participate in this program or have these experiences?

b. What is it about that activity/experience that you think has shaped or may shape your ethical perspective?

c. Are there any activities that you wanted to participate in but were unable?

d. What prohibited you from participating?

Justice

  1. 1.

    Tell me about a time when you felt that you or someone you know did not receive a fair response/reward for your/their efforts.

a. Why did you think it wasn’t fair?

b. How did you respond?

c. Why did you respond that way?

Ethical Climate

  1. 1.

    Thinking about the ethical climate of your university:

    1. a.

      Would you describe the ethical climate at [Student’s University] as cooperative or is there is a sense that everyone is out for themselves? Can you provide examples?

    2. b.

      Do you get a sense that students here are working towards a greater purpose? Can you provide examples?

    3. c.

      Do you think students behave according to the code of conduct or do you feel there are certain situations where you feel students are more willing to bend the rules? If so, when? And what makes you feel this way?

    4. d.

      Has your perception of the ethical climate at your university changed over the last 3-4 years? If so, how and why?

Moral Disengagement

  1. 1.

    The following items come from the survey you recently took. We’ll review some of these items and talk about why you either agreed or disagreed with the statements. All items range from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree. We will also talk about your responses from your previous interviews. [Q 49]:

    1. a.

      It’s alright to fight to protect your friends.

    2. b.

      It’s ok to steal to take care of your family’s needs.

    3. c.

      If a group decides together to do something harmful, it is unfair to blame any one member of the group for it.

    4. d.

      If someone leaves something lying around, it’s their own fault if it gets stolen.

Why did you choose this response? (Probe further)

Ethical Scenarios

When Andrew, a professional engineer, discovers evidence that leads him to strongly believe his supervising engineer is attempting to injure the reputation of a competing firm, what should Andrew do?

· Andrew should focus on doing his own work not on criticizing others.

· Andrew should inform the NCEES (National Council of Examiners For Engineering and Surveying) Licensing Board of his evidence and assist it in determining the truth of the matter.

· Andrew should resign from his job.

· Andrew should speak to the supervising engineer in order to determine the rationale for his actions.

  1. 1.

    In this scenario, you indicated that you would [xxxxx]. What factors influenced your choice?

Langdon, a consulting electrical engineer, is hired by PixDream, a major motion picture company, to design and oversee the construction of the power distribution system at the company’s new film studio. Once the system is in place, PixDream asks Langdon to accept a nine-­month contract extension, and to monitor the power system during the filming of Monster Mountain. He accepts the contract extension. Three weeks into the shoot, with the power system operating well within acceptable parameters, Langdon is asked by PixDream to give his opinion on a pyrotechnic specialist’s plan for detonating a series of explosive charges. The charges are triggered electrically, but their chemistry does not fall within Langdon’s expertise. PixDream is confident Langdon can become familiar enough with the charges to give them a professional and competent opinion. Langdon wants to continue working for PixDream, but is uncomfortable with the idea of giving his professional opinion on matters beyond his area of expertise.

Of the following, which is Langdon’s best option?

· Since he enjoys the work, Langdon can learn about a charge’s chemistry and give PixDream his opinion on the pyrotechnic specialist’s plan.

· Langdon can trust that the pyrotechnics specialist is knowledgeable and trustworthy, and give PixDream a favorable assessment of the plan.

· Langdon should contact some of the specialist’s previous clients and base his analysis on their degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the specialist’s work.

· Langdon should decline to accept the contract extension on grounds that explosives chemistry is beyond both his engineering education and subsequent work experience.

  1. 2.

    In this scenario, you indicated that you would [xxxxx]. What factors influenced your choice?

Muriel, a consulting computer engineer, is hired to review her client’s plans to expand its existing computer network. In the course of completing her examination of the client’s internal communication capacities and requirements, Muriel discovers that the client is using an unlicensed version of a popular proprietary software package to manage its financial accounts. Since her finding is only indirectly related to her work, Muriel is not sure what she should do.

Of the following options, which one should Muriel not choose?

- Since the unlicensed software is not directly related to her work, Muriel should ignore it and complete her assignment.

- Muriel should bring the matter to the attention of her client’s executive officer and terminate her contract.

- Muriel should refuse to continue her work for the client unless the unlicensed software is immediately replaced with a properly licensed version.

- Muriel should not allow the client to use her name in advertising materials.

  1. 3.

    In this scenario, you indicated that you would [xxxxx]. What factors influenced your choice?

Conclusion (Can be inserted at any point as needed.)

Is there anything you believe is unique about your experiences that you would like to share?

  1. 1.

    Is there anything else that has shaped your ethical perspectives that we haven’t spoken about?

  2. 2.

    Is there anything additional you would like to share?

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Howland, S.J., Kim, D. & Jesiek, B.K. Senior Engineering Students’ Reflection on Their Learning of Ethics and Morality: A Qualitative Investigation of Influences and Lessons Learned. International Journal of Ethics Education 7, 171–199 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40889-022-00139-5

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40889-022-00139-5

Keywords

  • Engineering ethics
  • Ethics education
  • Internship
  • Co-op
  • Family
  • Morality