Our ultimate goal is to facilitate a change in how students see themselves and their professional responsibility in relation to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Although we lack long-term data on whether “Engineering Ethics and the Public” is meeting this goal (a survey of course alumni was carried out in Dec. 2015-Jan.2016), we have some evidence that, at least in the short-term, it helps shift students’ thinking in fundamental ways.
We draw on two assessment questionnaires. They are discussed below.
The first assessment, administered at the end of Fall 2012, solicited student views about the main components of the course (e.g., lectures, readings, etc.). Student comments on the L2L unit revealed the following emerging themes:
a. 12 of 15 students noted that their exposure to real-world unfolding cases and the perspectives of marginalized stakeholders rendered engineering ethics “real,” “meaningful,” and “personal” because it gave “a face” to the ideas, concepts, and principles taught in class, making them more understandable and memorable, and inspiring self-reflection;
b. 9 of 15 students noted that their newly acquired ability to investigate a controversy ethnographically empowered them to uncover important dimensions of the case that were absent from official reports, and “brought the case home” on a deeper level than a literature review alone would have allowed.
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.”
These responses seem to suggest that the ethnographic component of our class helps expand how students see engineering/science ethics and inspires them to reimagine a) who “the public” is, b) who they, as engineers/scientists, are, c) what the power differential between experts and non-experts might be, and d) how they can relate to the publics they might one day affect in collaborative and empowering, rather than paternalistic or exploitative, ways.