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Introducing Ethics to First-year Graduate Students in an Agricultural Engineering Seminar—Jim Steichen, KSU (2008)

Overview

An agricultural engineering professor uses lectures, discussions, and a case study/response to incorporate ethics into a graduate seminar that included many visiting international students. Cultural perspectives yielded rich discussions about the case study.

Background

BAE 815, Graduate Seminar in Agricultural Engineering, is a one-credit course in which students practice giving presentations relevant to their field of research. All graduate students in our department attend. Even though our students are assessed by, and typically perform well on, the ethics portion of the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, our department has never offered formal training in ethics. My goal was to introduce an intellectual framework that could be used to guide ethical thinking and decision-making.

Implementation

I initially used two class periods to present and discuss the frameworks for ethical decision-making. Later in the semester, I devoted two additional classes to ethics.  During these, I emphasized ethics in a more applied context by using case studies as examples; I also presented smaller amounts of new theory that related to the earlier class periods. I gave one written assignment which involved making a decision based on a case study.

Student Work

Students performed very well on the assignment. Eight students earned A’s, and one student earned a B. In their assignments, students correctly identified the consequences of following the ethical route, and they seemed to identify very strongly with the graduate students who were part of the case study.

Reflections

Overall, I was pleased with the level of engagement and the level of performance of my students. The case study worked extremely well for this class, largely because it was a situation presented in the context of graduate study and therefore something to which they could relate.

Most of my international students came from places where the professor is held in high esteem and authority; in America, many students see their professors in a less hierarchical light. This diversity in perspectives provided ample fodder for group discussions and demonstrated to me how the analysis of ethical scenarios can be interpreted very differently depending on the cultural context.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No 0629443. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Background

I BAE 815, Graduate Seminar in Agricultural Engineering, is a one-credit course in which students have the opportunity to practice giving presentations relevant to their field of research. This course meets once a week; all graduate students in our department attend. Even though our students are assessed by, and typically perform well on, the ethics portion of the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, our department has never offered formal training in ethics.

My goal was to introduce an intellectual framework that could be used to guide ethical thinking and decision-making. This framework includes ethical relativism, utilitarianism, and deontological issues (duties, rights, and justice). I wanted to provide students with ethical dilemmas that occur in a research setting because as junior researchers—and indeed throughout their professional lives—students will encounter many such dilemmas.

There were 15 students in the course, many of whom were visiting international students. Teaching ethics to this student group seemed particularly relevant, given that they came from a variety of cultural and academic backgrounds and may not be familiar with American approaches to ethical dilemmas. I also anticipated that the diversity of the student body might add depth and new insights during our discussions.


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Implementation

I initially used two class periods to present and discuss the frameworks for ethical decision-making (see Deontological Approaches (pdf), Ethics Relativism (pdf), and Utilitarianism (pdf)). The following several weeks of class were devoted to seminar presentations unrelated to ethics (i.e. students presenting their research). Later in the semester, I devoted two additional classes to ethics. During these, I emphasized ethics in a more applied context by using case studies as examples; I also presented smaller amounts of new theory that related to the earlier class periods.

I gave one written assignment which involved making a decision based on a case study (pdf). The case study, recommended to me by a colleague, was reported in the journal Science. The story describes graduate students’ responses to their academic advisor allegedly falsifying data. I selected this assignment because of its relevance to my students’ lives (or at least current life stage). I wanted students to explain the steps they followed in making the decision and how they used ethical theory in justifying their decision. When I gave the assignment, I also gave students a rubric describing aspects of excellent performance. Overall, the assignment was worth 10% of their grade in the course.


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Student Work

Students performed very well on the assignment. Eight students earned A’s, and one student earned a B. (Check here to see examples of students’ work Student 1 (pdf), Student 2 (pdf), and Student 3 (pdf)). In their assignments, students correctly identified the consequences of following the ethical route. I think my graduate students identified very strongly with the graduate students affected by this case study. They were particularly distressed about the lack of support from the department and other parts of the university that students in the article received (or failed to receive). They had a hard time imagining how to deal with the problem of having the one faculty member that they most depended upon for their success, i.e. their advisor, also be someone in whom they couldn’t confide. During class discussions, my students explored various options for what they might do if they found evidence of data falsification in their own professional lives.


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Reflections

Overall, I was pleased with the level of engagement and the level of performance of my students. The case study worked extremely well for this class, largely because it was a situation presented in the context of graduate study and therefore something to which they could relate. I believe that relevant case studies are essential to teaching ethics; in my experience, this really opened the door for further exploration during group discussion.

Most of my international students came from places where the professor is held in high esteem and authority; in America, many students see their professors in a less hierarchical light. This diversity in perspectives provided ample fodder for group discussions and demonstrated to me how the analysis of ethical scenarios can be interpreted very differently depending on the cultural context. One international student (who didn’t want to share her paper publicly, so her work is not displayed on this portfolio) comes from a country with many religions and considerable religious conflict. The student is agnostic and found it unacceptable for the graduate student in the case study to counsel with a pastor in searching out what to do. This student also observed that the professor who committed academic misconduct was given the benefit of the doubt by her departmental faculty in part because she was a smart and a prominent figure in her field, as well as a woman in a discipline with few female faculty members. Would a less-prominent, male faculty-member have been turned in?

I would like to continue doing an ethics module in the graduate seminar class, perhaps every three or four semesters. However, I will need more case studies. Two possible options are to have students write their own case studies to exchange amongst themselves, or to have students find real examples from news sources or scientific publications that report highly-publicized cases.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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