Christian Engineering Education Conference

Salt Lake City, Utah
June 23-25, 2004

An Engineering Student Perspective on Ethics

William Jordan and Bill Elmore
College of Engineering and Science
Louisiana Tech University

As engineering educators we have a responsibility to promote the competent and ethical practice of engineering by our students as they enter the work place. To effectively do this, we need to understand the students’ perspective on ethical issues. In this paper we report on our students’ attitudes concerning several cheating related issues. We surveyed engineering students attending Louisiana Tech University, which is a medium sized public university in the rural south. This paper follows up on a paper the first author wrote in 1991 . That paper utilized student surveys taken during 1986-1990. We have retaken the survey during winter 2004. In this paper we will examine the change in student opinions over the past 15 years, and what this means to the way we teach and grade our courses.
Comparing the two survey results, our students claim they are less likely to cheat than their counterparts 15 years ago. However, the results are discouraging when these results are correlated with other questions. About one third of the students who claimed to have never cheated admitted they have sometimes done things they did not think was cheating, but that they knew violated the professor’s official standards.
It appears that our students think they are honest because they are redefining their ethical standards to accept what they are actually doing. This is a very post-modern approach to ethics. This is a challenge for Christian engineering professors to persuade the students to stop redefining ethical behavior solely on the basis of their own opinions.
It is not enough to just teach the students that engineers need to obey the ethical code of our State Board of Registration. While this code has the force of law behind it, many students do not believe they will be caught and have no fear of the code. Students need an internal reason to do what is right.
To help motivate our students, the first author has taught in our senior seminar class how our ethics come from our worldview. We have mentioned four classical ethical theories: utilitarian ethics, duty ethics, rights ethics, and virtue ethics. We have discussed real world engineering ethics case studies and outlined how people would respond based on their personal ethical perspectives. We endorse a virtue ethics approach for it is consistent with our Christian belief system. It is something that can be openly taught in a public university classroom. Virtue ethics is consistent with most parts of the engineering codes of conduct.

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