The second questionnaire, administered in the Fall 2013, was used to compare students’ pre- and post-instruction understandings about key ideas, concepts, and principles introduced in the course. A qualitative analysis of responses revealed several shifts, three of which pertained directly to engineers’/scientists’ relationship with “the public”:
a. At the beginning, students associated engineering/science ethics with abstract rules. At the end, their understanding revealed a shift to how engineers/scientists operate in real-world contexts and, more specifically, to their relationship with the diverse publics affected by their work.
b. At the beginning, students characterized “the public” as different and separate from engineers/scientists (e.g., general population, “herds of sheep,” organizations/companies, etc.). At the end, numerous students described it in relation to engineers/scientists, focusing on the power differential between the two (i.e., the public being affected by engineers/scientists but having limited control over their work).
c. At the beginning, students tended to view engineers’/scientists’ interactions with the public as risky because they felt that individuals who lack proper training can misunderstand or misinterpret technical information. At the end, students added to these risks that the information communicated by engineers/scientists can sometimes itself be inaccurate, incomplete, or even deceptive. Some students also asserted that engineers/scientists should not hesitate to communicate technical information to non-experts because the public has a “right to know” and, when treated with respect, it can be a “powerful ally.”