Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #3: Engaging Students in “Big Picture” Ethics

April 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

Numerous professional societies have codes of ethics or conduct that describe ethical considerations of those professions, including the professions’ relationships to and within society. Communication is an integral part of preparing students to be ethical members of these professions and of society. We used the engaged communication in the disciplines (E-CID) approach to study ethics education as a communication process for science and engineering students. Talking through ethical issues, rather than being talked to about ethics,helped students integrate ethical principles into their professional identities.

Engineering and science disciplines have structured curricula that tend to minimize sustained ethics education. However, numerous crises such as the Japanese nuclear plant disaster and the Minnesota bridge collapse point to the increasing importance of ethical considerations in design and implementation of technologies emanating from these disciplines. This study is part of a larger project that involved the development, implementation, and assessment of different models for teaching integrated micro-macro ethics to graduate students in science and engineering programs. Microethics issues arise at the individual level and include topics traditionally addressed in professional ethics education (e.g., conflicts of interest) .Macroethics issues exist at the collective level of a profession and include topics not always covered in ethics education (e.g., privacy concerns related to technology). 

One reason for integrating macroethics with microethics in science and engineering education is to get students to move beyond viewing ethics as following the rules. For many macroethical issues, there are no rules. The ground is always shifting as technology advances faster than guidelines can be drafted. Accordingly, the goal is one of getting students to take a “big picture” view of their work and their roles in society. The hope is to develop thoughtful technology professionals who acknowledge ways their work is connected to systems outside their lab or workplace.

Our study was conducted over a two-year period in science and engineering graduate courses that were set up to be different models for teaching micro-macro ethics. Students answered open-ended questions about how they viewed their role in society as a scientist or engineer at the beginning (pre-test) and end (post-test) of each semester. Students also answered open-ended questions about methods of instruction used and what they found to be valuable and relevant. 

Our qualitative analysis found five themes in the pre-test responses about roles in society: 

  • Focus on societal benefits
    • Sub-themes such as “contribute to knowledge,” “improve quality or way of life,” “solve societal problems” 
    • Example response: “[An] engineer’s role is making a society better than before. They make people’s lives easier and comfortable.”
  • Focus on obligation
    • References to duties, obligations, or responsibilities to some bigger or higher authority that guides what they do. 
    • Example response: “If corners are cut or shortcuts taken or mistakes are overlooked due to budget pressure or saving faces, lives can be lost or moral integrity tarnished.”
  • Focus on self
    • Focused solely on the respondent’s goals, practices, or desires without any acknowledgment of a larger role in society. 
    • Example response: “As a lab scientist I go in, do work, go home.  Currently it is not my position to worry about other sociological problems; we have people/committees for that.” 
  • Focus on sustainability
    • Included references to concern for the environment and alternative energy
      • Example response: “In addition, they should not ruin the environment.”
  • Focus on technology
    • Focused more on the development of technology or on innovation than on the outcomes of such developments. 
    • Example response: “The role of the scientist/engineer is to develop, implement, and support products. What is produced is determined by the free market, as are their nature.”

We found the post-test responses to the question about role in society were more precise and nuanced, and categorized them into seven distinct themes. Many of these themes were the same as pre-test themes:

  • Duty or obligation
  • Self-centered role
  • Improve society
  • Consider sustainability 

But new themes emerged as well: 

  • Honest research practices 
    • Emerged as its own role in society rather than as part of an overall duty. 
  • Awareness of research outcomes  
    • Reflects a concern for long-term consequences of work that is part of a sustainability perspective. 
    • Example response: “As a scientist I feel that it is my role to do science but also to be aware of potential uses of my research.” 
  • Communicator
    • Example response: “In addition to this primary role I also realize that I must consider the consequences of my findings and need to relate them in some meaningful way to the public so that they will be informed for political discussions.” 

Several themes emerged about students’ perceptions of valuable and relevant educational experiences. One theme that emerged was increasing awareness. Students identified several types of increased awareness: 

  • Awareness of ethical considerations
  • Being introduced to new topics
  • Their own self-awareness
  • Awareness of alternative views on issues
  • Stimulating current and future communication about ethical/social responsibility issues 

Case studies were seen as a useful teaching method and often were linked to class discussion. PowerPoint slides and online modules were less engaging than open discussions in class. Students reported that instruction was both relevant and valuable when there was a practical connection to their current and future professional concerns. Interactive teaching methods were noted as helping to develop thinking about issues that would not have been considered otherwise. One student wrote, “I think discussion is more necessary than presentation. I think it is useful. Usually we do not have time to clearly think through these issues. It is a good time for us to think and know other people’s thoughts.”  

Our findings suggest that teaching methods encouraging critical thinking and engagement foster more complex student views of their roles in society. Multiple and nuanced articulations of students’ roles in society increased with their exposure to discussions, case studies, and alternative opinions. These were experiences wherein students were being trained in their disciplines and learning the communication skills of articulation of ideas, argument about issues, and listening to alternative views.

Indeed, in post-test responses, several students specifically noted that they see their role in society, at least in part, as a communicator. It is reasonable to conclude when students gain skill and confidence in discussing complexities of ethics issues, they also develop more complex views of their places in society. This is a notable outcome of these ethics education experiences. We may be seeing an increased sense of social engagement by these professionals-in-training who have opportunities to talk through ethical issues in the safety of classroom communities. These students may be developing anethical voice as a result of the dialogic ethics education experiences rather than clinging to self-focused identities as rule-following professionals who see ethics as mere tools

There are several lessons from this study. First, student responses highlight the importance of fostering communication and dialogue in discipline-specific courses. Effective ethics instruction connects theory to practice by demonstrating how problems or concerns might arise in daily professional life. Engaged ethics instruction provides students opportunities to meaningfully involve their peers in discussions about contentious issues. Instructors foster student reflexivity by incorporating a variety of instructional strategies such as discussion, videos, and case studies. Finally, ethics instruction can cultivate students’ abilities to transfer decision-making skills to their own discipline or area. Educators can intentionally provide opportunities for students to develop communication skills through in-class discussions about difficult topics. Those skills, in turn, provide a way for students to develop their ethical voices in their professions.

About the author (s)

Heather E. Canary

University of Utah

Assistant Professor

Julie L. Taylor

University of Utah

Doctoral Candidate

Joseph R. Herkert

Arizona State University

Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology

Karin Ellison

Arizona State University

Associate Director, Center for Biology and Society

Jameson M. Wetmore

Arizona State University
Associate Professor

Carlos A. Tarin

University of Utah

Doctoral Candidate